Mildred Loving: the Accidental Activist

05/29/2008 03:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As a first year law student, I was introduced to Mildred Loving by way of Loving v. Virginia, a case that appeared in my Constitutional Law casebook. Years now out of law school, I was re-introduced to Mildred Loving earlier this month when I learned that she had passed away and I was reminded how ordinary citizens engaging in everyday activism can bring about radical change.

Activism, as defined in the Webster dictionary, is "a doctrine or practice that emphasizes vigorous action." In his book Letters to a Young Activist Todd Gitlin writes:

"An activist refuses to take the world for granted. Faced with pain and evil, the activist is not content to deplore or rage or regret, does not just believe or wish or declare but thinks: I'm not an outsider to the world, and the world... is not an outsider to me."

Gitlin goes on to note, "activist... reminds us that the world not only is but is made: Human beings make history, though... not in conditions of their own making." Such was the case of Mildred Loving.

On the face of it, the courtship of Mildred Delores Jeter and Richard Perry Loving of Central Point, Caroline County in Virginia, does not seem out of the ordinary. They grew up in the same neighborhood and knew each other since childhood. As teenagers, they fell in love and got married. But the year was 1958, a time when Virginia was one of 16 states that banned marriages between races. Mildred was black; Richard was white.

On June 6, 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were married in Washington, D.C. However, a marriage between two people of different races performed outside Virginia was not recognized inside Virginia. Ironically, that same year, the Rev. Martin Luther King said, "When any society says I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom."

On July 11, 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were at home in Central Point. Acting on an anonymous tip, the sheriff and two deputies burst into the Lovings' home and began interrogating the couple.

Mildred and Richard Loving pleaded guilty to violating Virginia's "Racial Integrity Act." Under a plea bargain, they agreed to leave Virginia and not return together or at the same time for a period of twenty-five years, in exchange for which their one-year prison sentences were suspended. But by 1963, Mildred Loving called on then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, for assistance. He referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Lovings have steadfastly maintained that their initial motive was not to challenge Virginia law. According to Mr. Loving, "We are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us." Then again, it was Che Guevara who noted, "The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love."

The case made it all the way to the highest court and, in 1967, the Supreme Court struck down the last group of segregation laws which required separation of the races in marriage. In Loving v. Virginia, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that miscegenation laws violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution and noted that the court has consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race.

Notwithstanding protestations to the contrary, Mildred Loving was an activist in the truest sense of the word. By refusing to give in to rage or regret, Mildred went on to make history and has left the world a better place.