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Film retells Lovings’ love story
BY JONAS BEALS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Mildred and Richard Loving were probably the last people you would expect to make
legal history, but in 1967 they won a U.S. Supreme Court case that nullified laws against interracial marriage in Virginia and the 15 other states that still banned miscegenation. And it happened in Caroline County.
Their story has become legend in certain legal and civil rights circles, but their historic ordeal is less well known to younger generations and people in other areas of the country. That’s about to change.
HBO will première “The Loving Story” on Valentine’s Day—Feb. 14.
The producers have been screening the film across the country, and on Saturday they brought it home. Friends, family and admirers packed the auditorium of the Caroline County Community Services Center. The screening ended with a standing ovation.
The documentary, directed by Nancy Buirski, is mostly made up of black-and-white footage shot by Hope Ryden in 1965 and black-and-white photos taken by Life magazine photographer Grey Villet, also in 1965.
“It just seemed so obvious,” Buirski said of making a film about the Lovings’ relationship. “It’s such a powerful love story.”
The events surrounding their marriage are nothing if not dramatic. Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred Jeter, a black and American Indian woman, in Washington in 1958. Interracial marriage was legal in Washington, but it was illegal for Virginia residents to go there for the express purpose of interracial marriage. Six weeks after they got married and came home, then-Caroline Sheriff Garnett Brooks kicked down their door at 4 a.m. and threw the newlyweds in jail.
Their refusal to get divorced earned them a ticket out of the state. They lived in exile in Washington for a few years and longed for their country home in Central Point in southeastern Caroline. They eventually violated the law and moved back to Virginia.
Even the legal side of the story is dramatic—the case was argued by two Northern Virginia lawyers who were barely out of law school. They found their way through the convoluted legal process and finally earned a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court. They won unanimously, overturning hundreds of years of legal precedent.
The Lovings (and by extension, love) didn’t just win, they pitched a no-hitter and hit a grand slam in the final game of the World Series.
But watching the documentary reveals something much simpler than all that: a couple who just wanted to be together. If the movie footage is any indication, the victory was not an epic triumph for the Lovings. It simply let them live in the place they loved, under the same roof with their three children.
To say they fought is, perhaps, inaccurate. They weren’t trying to rock the boat—they were trying to stand their ground. They certainly endured their fair share of abuse and criticism, but the documentary footage shows a couple steadfast in their devotion to each other, not a political or social cause.
Perhaps that is why they were the perfect couple to take such an important step. They were simply two people in love—something most everyone can relate to.
Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop were the American Civil Liberties Union lawyers who handled the case. Cohen, now retired, lives in Spotsylvania County and attended the screening on Saturday. He was confident that the court would decide in their favor in 1967.
“How could you lose a case about love,” he asked, “with a couple named Loving?”
But the naturally reserved couple might also have a story that could use the sort of jolt that an HBO documentary provides.
Richard Loving died in a car accident in 1975 and Mildred died in 2008. Their lone surviving child, Peggy Loving Fortune, attended the screening and took part in a panel discussion afterward. She said she was hesitant to get involved in the documentary at first, but eventually supported the movie “to let people know it was my parents who fought for their freedom.”
“I see a lot of mixed couples,” Fortune said. “I look at them and smile.”
Plenty of those couples still make Caroline County their home, and the film makes it clear that Central Point has long been a place where interracial relationships were common and condoned, even in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
But not everyone took those relationships so lightly. There is footage of Mildred Loving talking about a cross that was burned in her parents’ yard. She doesn’t seem angry when she talks about it, and neither does Richard. As he does throughout most of the movie, he sits stoically by her side, sometimes holding her hand, sometimes embracing her.
“We knew there were enemies,” Mildred Loving said, “but we knew there were friends.”
The Caroline County audience members couldn’t hold back their pride—they cheered for the Lovings, and they cheered for love. The rest of the country is about to follow suit.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036