hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




In defense of love

Photos depict couple in historic right-to-marry case

Contributing writer



The black-and-white photographs could be of almost any happy, affectionate family from the mid-1960s.

They show a husband and wife sharing a conversation or tender moment, playing with their three children on the living room couch, working with a friend on a car in the back yard, the children climbing a tree, the parents enjoying the local drag races. Some of the photos are strikingly intimate: the wife sewing a button on her husband’s shirt; a kiss; a close-up of the husband’s craggy face.
But Richard and Mildred Loving and their three children were an ordinary family caught up in an extraordinary legal dispute. Richard, a construction worker, was white. Mildred was black and Native American. They had been married legally in Washington, D.C., but under the laws of Virginia, their home state, their marriage was a crime deemed worthy of a felony charge.
In June 1965, when Grey Villet took the photographs for LIFE magazine, the Lovings were living secretly in rural Virginia, trying to evade prison terms as an appeal of their criminal conviction made its way through the Virginia court system.

Their case would eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court’s decision, on June 12, 1967, struck down bans on interracial marriage in Virginia and 15 other states. More recently, the case of Loving vs. Virginia has been cited repeatedly in the debate over same-sex marriage rights.


Now 20 of Villet’s photographs of the Lovings are on display through June 20 at the Courthouse Community Center in Salem. The exhibit in the courthouse’s Great Hall is courtesy of Villet’s widow, Barbara, a photojournalist in her own right and a longtime resident of Shushan.
“Barbara is a courthouse supporter,” said Donna Farringer, the venue’s executive director. “She approached me last summer about featuring Grey’s work, especially the Loving series. The series has been shown in many places. Barbara wants to keep the story going.”


Unwitting felons
Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter lived in Caroline County, southeast of Fredericksburg, Va. The region’s population was racially mixed, and informal relationships across the color line weren’t unknown. But marriage between people of different races, also known as miscegenation, was illegal under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

In June 1958, Mildred, then 18, discovered she was pregnant. She and Richard went to the District of Columbia, about 60 miles away, to be married, then returned to Central Point, Va. What they did not realize was that under the same law, going to another jurisdiction to marry and returning was also a crime.

Virginia imposed its first ban on interracial marriage in 1691; it was the second American colony to do so. Massachusetts was third in 1705.

Although nine states, including New York and Vermont, never restricted marriage based on race, all the others did at some point. Massachusetts dropped its law in 1843. By 1967, only the 16 southern states, from Texas east, still prohibited miscegenation.
Soon after the Lovings’ marriage, the county sheriff’s department raided their home. Their framed marriage certificate became evidence against them. A local judge, Leon Bazile, sentenced them to a year in prison – with the sentence suspended for 25 years if they left Caroline County and didn’t come back.
The Lovings moved to Washington, but they didn’t like city life and missed their families. Under Bazile’s sentence, they could not even travel together in Caroline County. They left Washington and settled secretly in King and Queen County, next door to their home county.


Seeking help
Mildred chafed under the restrictions the conviction had imposed on them. On the advice of a friend, she wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, then the U.S. attorney general, to ask for help. Kennedy replied that their case was outside his jurisdiction, and he recommended she contact the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU assigned them to a pair of young lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop. Cohen and Hirschkop began the long process of appealing the Lovings’ conviction and sentence through the Virginia courts, arguing that the couple’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment had been violated.

The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Lovings didn’t attend the hearing, but Richard sent a message through their lawyers: “Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”

Virginia’s attorney general contended interracial marriages were damaging to children. The court rejected that claim and ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings.

Although the Supreme Court ruling in Loving vs. Virginia immediately made all state miscegenation laws unenforceable, the laws continued on the books for some years. Alabama, which barred interracial marriage in its state constitution, was the last to undo the prohibition, through a ballot initiative in 2000. Even then, 40 percent of the state’s voters supported keeping the ban.

As it turned out, the Lovings didn’t have long to enjoy their married life. In 1975, a drunk driver crashed into their car, killing Richard. Mildred lost an eye in the accident; she lived until 2008. Both their sons died young, and their daughter Peggy is their only surviving child.


Photos capture a story
At the time the Lovings’ case was making its way through the courts, LIFE assigned freelancer Grey Villet to do a photo essay on them. Villet was a native of South Africa who had come to the United States in 1954.

“South Africa is complex,” Barbara Villet recalled. “There was a lot of resistance to apartheid among both blacks and whites.”

She added that Cape Town, where Grey’s family lived, “was always far more liberal” than the rest of the country.

“Grey was very liberal, very caring,” Barbara recalled.
Among the nearly 1,000 assignments he took from LIFE, “he covered endless civil rights stories,” she said.

When he took the assignment to photograph the Lovings, his first task was to persuade the Lovings, country people who were trying to live quietly, to be photographed for a national magazine in a shoot that would last two weeks.

“He was a real gentleman, and his manners were perfect,” Barbara recalled. “They couldn’t say no.”
On the job, Grey was unobtrusive, Barbara said.
“He was as quiet as a cat,” she said. “People forgot he was there.”
He often shot with a medium-long lens, allowing him to get close-up views of intimate moments from another room.

As a photojournalist, “he was essentially honest,” Barbara said. “He never posed people. He used only available light, and he never asked anyone to repeat an action for the camera.”
Instead, he had a photographer’s eye for the telling moment.

For example, Grey accompanied the Lovings to their lawyer’s office. A photo taken over the lawyer’s shoulder shows Richard, deeply tanned, with a blond crew cut and plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, slumped in a chair, clearly unhappy. Next to him is Mildred, sitting upright in a light-colored sleeveless dress with a black belt and a string of beads around her neck, her African and Native American heritage plain in her face. She appears pretty, poised and determined. Behind them, a bored Peggy sprawls in a chair. Snapshots of the lawyer’s own family are just visible on his desk.

Grey was disappointed that LIFE used only six or seven of his photos, Barbara said. He made prints of 50 of his negatives for the Lovings and 20 to keep for himself. Then “the story more or less disappeared,” Barbara said.

Grey died unexpectedly at home in Shushan in 2000.

In 2010, Nancy Buirski and Elizabeth Haviland James began working on a documentary film about the Lovings. Peggy Loving brought out the photographs Grey Villet had taken, spurring Buirski to track down Barbara.

Some of the photos appear in the award-winning 2011 film, “The Loving Story.”
Buirski encouraged Barbara Villet to put together an exhibit of Grey’s pictures of the Lovings. With support from other notable photojournalists, the 20 prints were shown at the International Center for Photography in New York City.

Before the current show in Salem, the photos were most recently exhibited in New Orleans, Barbara said. One photo from the series is now in the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The courthouse show opened on May 9 with a reception and a screening of “The Loving Story.” The film will be shown again locally, at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 12, at the Freight Depot Theater at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y.

Farringer said the response to the courthouse exhibit has been very positive.
“I’ve received congratulations and thanks, nothing negative,” she said.

The Courthouse Community Center is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as for special events and by request. For more information, visit www.salemcourthouse.org or call (518) 854-7053. Some of Grey Villet’s photographs of the Lovings can be seen at www.greyvillet.com. The photos are under copyright and license and cannot be reproduced without permission.