It Has Been 47 Years Since This Couple Helped Redefine Marriage

06/12/2014 04:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Their love was criminal.

Mildred Jeter, a 17-year-old black woman, and Richard Loving, a 23-year-old white man, were just like any other young couple in love, except their union was illegal in 16 states. After one judge's decision kept them away from home, they fought for change.

June 12 marks the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 decision to recognize the couple's love and declare bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional. Here's how Loving v. Virginia went down.

The couple wed in 1958 in Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was legal. However, upon their return home to Virginia, the newlyweds were charged with unlawful cohabitation and jailed because their marriage violated the state’s Racial Integrity Act, which banned marriage between blacks and whites.

During their sentencing, the judge presiding over the case gave the pair a choice: Spend a year in prison, or don’t return to Virginia for 25 years. They chose the latter.

In his decision, Judge Leon M. Bazile said: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Five years later, however, the couple's burning desire to return home motivated them to contact the American Civil Liberties Union to try to reverse the judge's decision.

Eventually, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Virginia court's decision.

“Under our Constitution,” Chief Justice Earl Warren said of the court's decision, “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Richard died just years after the decision in a car crash in 1975. Mildred never remarried and died in 2008. The Lovings never imagined their story would so drastically alter the social fabric of America.

“They just were in love with one another and wanted the right to live together as husband and wife in Virginia, without any interference from officialdom," Bernard Cohen, the ACLU volunteer attorney who took on their case, told NPR on the decision's 40th anniversary in 2007.

YOU MAY LIKE

CONVERSATIONS