On June 2, 1958, a white man named Richard Loving and his part-black, part-Cherokee fiancée Mildred Jeter travelled from Caroline County, VA to Washington, D.C. to be married. At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in 21 states, including Virginia. Back home two weeks later, the newlyweds were arrested, tried and convicted of the felony crime of "miscegenation." To avoid a one-year jail sentence, the Lovings agreed to leave the state; they could return to Virginia, but only separately. Living in exile in D.C. with their children, the Lovings missed their families and dearly wanted to return to their rural home. At the advice of her cousin, Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who wrote her back suggesting she get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Two young ACLU lawyers, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, took on the Lovings' case, fully aware of the challenges posed at a time when many Americans were vehement about segregation and maintaining the "purity of the races." In interviews filmed at the time, the two lawyers dissect the absurdities of the laws and the difficulties of trying a case over five years old. Today, Hirschkop recalls that Mildred was quiet and articulate, while joking that his initial impression of Richard was that he looked like a crew-cut "redneck." As they came to know them, however, it became apparent that the couple was deeply committed to each other. With an eye towards taking their case to the highest possible court, Cohen filed a motion to vacate the judgment on the Lovings' original conviction and set aside the sentence. Local Judge Leon Bazile denied the motion, stating that God had separated people by continents and did not "intend for the races to mix." After the Virginia Supreme Court responded with similarly antiquated and racist sentiments, Cohen and Hirschkop seized the opportunity to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although the odds of getting a case heard by the Court were slim, Cohen and Hirschkop learned that Loving v. Virginia would be heard on April 10, 1967. Aware that their case had the potential to set a landmark precedent, the two green lawyers (Hirschkop was only two years out of law school and had never argued before the Supreme Court) prepped in New York before heading to the famous Supreme Court building in D.C. In oral arguments heard on audiotape, the State compared anti-miscegenation statutes to the right to prohibit incest, polygamy, and underage marriage, claiming that children are victims in an interracial marriage. The plaintiff's lawyers, by contrast, included legal arguments interspersed with references to sociology and anthropology. And though the Lovings chose not to attend, Cohen may have made the most compelling case by relaying to Chief Justice Warren and his fellow judges Richard's simple message: "Tell the court that I love my wife, and it is unfair that I can't live with her in Virginia."
After a two-month wait, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings on June 12, 1967. This precedent-setting decision resulted in 16 states being ordered to overturn their bans on interracial marriage. Alabama was the last holdout, finally repealing its anti-miscegenation law in 2000.
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