TIME Civil Rights

Richard and Mildred Loving: Reluctant Civil Rights Heroes

Richard and Mildred Loving never asked to be heroes of the Civil Rights movement. But when the state of Virginia deemed their interracial marriage illegal, the couple fought back. And won.

In March 1966, LIFE magazine published a feature under the quietly chilling headline, “The Crime of Being Married.” Illustrated with photographs by Grey Villet, the article told the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a married interracial couple battling Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statutes. Villet’s warm, intimate pictures revealed a close-knit family, including children and grandparents, living their lives in opposition to a patently unjust law — but also captured eloquent moments that suggested just how heavily the Loving’s defiance of that law weighed on the very private couple.

The LIFE article and Villet’s images, read and viewed today, assume a poignancy and power perhaps unimagined by the magazine’s readers in 1966. The couple, after all, was awaiting an appeal on a court ruling that had, in effect, banished them from their hometown. At the time, the Lovings were adamant (in their own unassuming way) that they had no interest in being cast as Civil Rights heroes. All they wanted was to live their lives and raise their children in peace.

But decades later, we know what the people in Villet’s published photographs — a frowning Richard Loving; Mildred Loving, her eyes downcast — might have hoped and prayed for, but could never ultimately count on: namely, that a year later, on June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court finally and unanimously decided the case of Loving v. Virginia, ruling against the state and finding all anti-miscegenation laws across the country unconstitutional.

Here, LIFE.com presents a gallery of Grey Villet’s photos of the Lovings, along with sections of the article (below) that appeared in the March 18, 1966, issue of LIFE:

Both Lovings were born and raised in the isolated hill country around Caroline County, north of Richmond, where there has always been an easy-going tolerance on the race question. It stirred little fuss when the couple culminated a long and agonized courtship by traveling to Washington, D.C., to get married in 1958. But five weeks later the county sheriff routed them out of bed at 2 a.m. and took them off to jail. A local judge handed down a year’s sentence but suspended it if they agreed to leave the state immediately and stay away for 25 years.

Badly frightened and unaware of their right of appeal, the Lovings lived five years of hand-to-mouth exile in Washington. Even so, they were re-arrested when they returned for a visit to Mildred’s family. Released on bail, they wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, asking for help. This led the American Civil Liberties Union to take an interest in their case. The Lovings decided to take up permanent residence in Virginia and fight. Now their case will return to federal court — where Loving v. Virginia may well become the next big landmark in civil rights.

Richard and Mildred Loving realize that their fight will affect the lives of many other people if they win; there are probably a half million mixed marriages in the U.S. at present. But the Lovings do not look upon themselves as champions of civil rights.

“[We] are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones,” says Richard. “We are doing it for us — because we want to live here.”

[Visit GreyVillet.com to see more of the photographer’s work]

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