45 Years Later, a Double Tribute to Loving v. Virginia

An HBO documentary and a photography exhibition pay tribute to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that decriminalized interracial marriage.

On July 11, 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested in their own home in Caroline County, Virginia. Their crime: Marriage. Richard was white; Mildred was black and American Indian, and according to Virginia's 1924 Racial Integrity Act, their nuptials the previous month in Washington DC weren't invalid in the state of Virginia, they were illegal.

Judge Leon Bazile, who presided over the Lovings' trial, once offered this explanation of anti-miscegenation laws: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

The Lovings pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a year in prison, which was suspended on the condition they leave the state and not return together for 25 years.

So they moved to Washington, DC, but always wished to return home to Caroline County, where they both grew up. (In fact, they did venture back into Virginia surreptitiously from time to time.) In 1964, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who advised her to contact the American Civil Liberties Union. She did, and so began a legal saga that lasted until June 12, 1967, when the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the Lovings' favor and overturned their convictions. They returned to Virginia as man and wife.

When Filmmaker Nancy Buirski set out to make a documentary on the Lovings, she uncovered a wealth of material that had essentially gone unseen for decades. In addition to 16mm film, she also found pictures taken for Life magazine by South African photographer Grey Villet. Villet shot 73 rolls of film for the magazine, but only nine were used; he developed and sent 70 prints to the Lovings.

Those images, and others from Villet's estate, are now on display at the International Center for Photography in New York City. In an article about the show for the New York Times, critic Martha Schwendener writes that "In Mr. Villet’s photographs Richard and Mildred Loving exist in a world of romantic understanding and connubial bliss (segregation laws aside). Several images show the couple kissing." Schwendener writes that the pictures are in the classic Life photo-essay style, and that "the overriding message ... that the Lovings are supremely ordinary, working-class folks." The Loving Story: Photographs by Grey Villet runs through May 6.

Director Nancy Buirski made her film, also titled The Loving Story, and it debuted on HBO on Valentine's Day. The Washington Post's Hank Stuever writes that the documentary "rescues the Lovings from the perfunctory realm of footnotes and newspaper clippings and brings them into a more emotional light." Stuever continues: "The Lovings weren’t media savvy, but the camera loved them all the same. Mildred, with her lovely smile and natural sense of calm, does most of the talking as broad-shouldered, crew-cutted Richard comes and goes, performing his chores. Together they looked like what would happen if Big Moose from the 'Archie' comics had wooed Lena Horne. Clearly, the attention made them feel awkward; the last thing they wanted was a fuss, but when trouble came, they faced it with courage."

The Loving Story is currently in rotation on HBO and available via HBO On Demand.