NAACP Legal Defense Fund : Defend, Educate, Empower

Skip to Navigation
"The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is simply the best civil rights law firm in American history." -- President Obama

The Loving Story: A New HBO Documentary tells the love story that helped destroy Jim Crow

Featured Video

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email updates from LDF.

Friday, February 10, 2012

By Tarice L.S. Gray

It was the late 1950s when two native Virginians, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, whose ancestors included Native Americans as well as African Americans, made the decision to become husband and wife. They had lived their entire lives in the state, which rigidly enforced segregation, yet discovered that their devotion to each other was in fact color blind. They were determined to live freely as man and wife – a commitment that ultimately changed history.

The law books and the history books know them as the principals of Loving v. Virgina, the monumental case that provoked the 1967 Supreme Court ruling striking down state laws against racial intermarriage. The decision was truly an historic moment, one that literally reversed more than three centuries of American law.

But at its heart was a simple, profound love story between one man and one woman who in and of themselves were unlikely crusaders in the fight for equality.

Next Tuesday – Valentine’s Day – HBO will present a documentary, “The Loving Story”  that examines in gripping fashion the drama of both the civil rights crusade and the love story.

Thursday evening HBO screened the documentary at the Manhattan headquarters of Time Warner, HBO’s parent company. It was followed by a panel discussion that included Peggy Loving, the Loving’s daughter (they also had two sons), Nancy Buirski, the film’s director, Philip J. Hirschkop, one of the Loving’s two attorneys who argued the case before the Supreme Court, and Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).

The latter two organizations, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, provided critical support to the legal case (PDF) constructed by Hirschkop and his law partner, Benjamin S. Cohen.

Peggy Loving and Nancy Buirski spoke to reporters before the screeining  about the journey of Richard and Mildred Loving, and the ways in which the couple’s impact is still being felt today.

 

Q.   There were many critical moments in the fight to end segregation. The Little Rock nine integrating schools, even Rosa Parks who was tired of being “pushed” around decided to make a point. But the Lovings were decidedly different. How much attention did they want to bring to their cause?

Peggy: They didn’t want attention. I know my Mom realized that what they went through helped a lot of people. But she didn’t want the attention; she just wanted to be left alone to live her life in peace and harmony.

 

Q.   Did those feelings change over time? Richard was killed in an automobile accident eight years after their Supreme Court victory. But, Mildred lived long enough to see profound change

Peggy: She understood [her impact]. She was proud of President Obama.

 

Q.   This case proved pivotal in the fight for racially equality. And this film documents the struggle for basic human rights, but it’s also a love story. Peggy, you witnessed at least part of your parents love story. What was it like?

Peggy: They grew up in [Central Point, Virginia] and, as my Mom said, [RIchard] was arrogant and she didn’t like him at first, but then she fell in love with him. To me, it was love at first sight because, you know when you don’t like somebody, that’s what it really is (laughs). They grew up together, and they fell in love and they got married and of course had kids. That’s when their trouble began.

 

Q.   Peggy, what was it like growing up with them. Were your parents the truest definition of their name Loving?

They were all over each other, hugging and kissing holding hands, telling each of that they loved one another. Not only to each other; but they told us as well.

 

Q.   It’s hard for many people to envision a place in the South where the races lived in harmony, and a relationship like this could be nurtured in the late 1950s. What was it about Central Point, where they met and lived? Was it unique?

Peggy: It was a mixture of people in that area. They helped one another with whatever needed to be. My grandmother was a mid-wife so she helped a lot of families, black, white or mixed, Native American. I call it a mixing bowl. That was Central Point.

Nancy: Central Point actually in some ways is a character in the movie, because it is kind of unique, and we found it fascinating. There was so much mixing, and there was this harmonious interaction of every type. You had a lot of African Americans, you had a lot of Native Americans. Peggy’s family is to a great extent, Native American and then you have a lot of whites and they have mixed over many generations, so you can’t even tell who is who. You go in the black church and there are a lot of white faces, or it seems white faces, in there and no one cares in Central Point. As soon as you get outside of Central Point, however, things change. You had a sheriff who was working in Bowling Green [Virginia] and taking instructions from the Commonwealth. He was watching as there was a lot of interracial love and living together, but I think when Richard and Mildred decided to leave to get married [they had to drive to Washington, D.C. to do so] thereby violating the state law against interracial marriage, I think that’s what riled [the sheriff] as much as it did. They actually married. They had a marriage certificate on the wall, and they left the state [to do so], even though Mildred said she wasn’t aware of the prohibition.

 

Q .   The ACLU  helped shaped the case, which came a decade after the hard-fought Brown v. Board decision. 

Both attorney’s Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop believed at the time, the case was going to have a huge impact but were also fortunate to follow Brown v. Board. How significant was that precursor?

Nancy: I think when lawyers decide how to fight a case or argue a case, they become very strategic. It took from 1963 when Mildred wrote to, first, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and, then,  the [American Civil Liberties Union]  all the way to 1967 before the case got to the Supreme Court. There were numerous hearings in between that period. During that [longer]] period when things were changing, you not only had Brown versus the Board of Education in 1955, but you had the Voting Rights Act in 1965. All of this is taking place at the time that {the Lovings and their attorney’s are gearing up to take their case to the Supreme Court, and frankly hoping that it was going to go to the Supreme Court. You know if [the Virginia state or the lower Federal courts] had ruled in their favor, it never would have gotten to the Supreme Court. Then the [anti-miscegenation] statutes themselves would not have been ruled unconstitutional. So, in many ways they were pleased when their appeals were turned down. [Philip] Hirschkop said recently, that once the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, they were pretty confident about a victory. The Supreme Court is also responding to a climate. They are evaluating whether or not the times are right to hear a case like that and potentially overturn statutes that probably should have never been on the books in the first place.

 

Q.   We do not live in a post racial society, yet people today may not fully understand what black people faced back in the 1950s and 1960s. People of African descent were considered inferior in white society. And their very lives weren’t as valuable. What does that say about the bravery of both Mildred and Richard, who could have left her, and lived freely in the “ruling class”?

Peggy: My Mom made the comment to me that she would be happy with whomever I married because, one, she wanted me to be happy, and, two, I would have to live with that person not her (laughs). But his family was very supportive. I never heard my grandparents say anything negative about my Mom. And when [Richard]  built our home, they were there to help us. It was just a loving family. we helped one another. Our community supported them too.

 

Q.    In the film, Richard’s mother did say she supported the marriage and that no doubt was comforting for the couple. But I’m wondering at any point did the families outside that union question if the fight to be together was worth that struggle. Was there ever anyone who said to Richard who was white, he should move on?

Peggy: I wouldn’t think that conversation ever came up. They supported him whatever decision he made. And he was determined; his mind was made up that this is who he was going to marry. They went to D.C. and got married and came back. The decision was made. It was done and they supported him.

 

Q.   The documentary was the Loving’s love story as told in a court of law, and for many it brings to mind the  battle for same sex marriage which mostly recently found a ray of light in California with the striking down of Proposition 8. How has this historic case assisted in the fight for same sex marriage?

Nancy: I think there are a lot of parallels. I think that we’re really talking about a human rights issue, it’s a civil rights issue, and I think the question of treating people with dignity and letting them love who they want to love is really what this film is about, and what so many same sex couples are struggling with today. It’s not a very didactic film, it doesn’t really talk explicitly about these issues, but I think that a lot of people that see the film appreciate that this is a safe environment to think about the issues, no matter what side of the issues you are on. It just gives you something to think about. It sparks a conversation. And so I mean the way it’s treated is very affective. Sometimes film come on very strongly in favor of one thing or another, and sometimes causes more divisiveness; but I think this film has an opportunity to bring people of all persuasions together.

 

Q.   What should people take away from The Loving Story? Do you want to see changed minds and hearts within those who feel marriage should look a certain way?

Nancy: Yes. I think the culture takes a long time to catch up with the politics, and we shouldn’t take this for granted. We’ve fallen into an acceptance of the change, which is wonderful in some ways. We want to be able to take it for granted. But not everybody feels this way. So, I hope with this documentary people will come to love Mildred and Richard as people, and feel empathetic towards them and what they went through, and it’ll open their eyes to how really absurd these laws are that put boundaries on love.

 

Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance writer and blogger for GrayCurrent.com