When the Serendipitously Named Lovings Fell in Love, Their World Fell Apart

The new film captures the quiet essence of the couples’ powerful story, says Smithsonian scholar Christopher Wilson

Richard and Mildred Loving by Grey Villet, 1965 (NPG, © Grey Villet)
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“My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders,” said human rights leader Ella Baker, who worked behind the scenes of the Black Freedom Movement for more than five decades. Her vision of participatory democracy was eloquently summed up in the composition “Ella’s Song,” written by Bernice Johnson Reagon, founding member of the music ensemble “Sweet Honey in the Rock.”

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me

I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny.

The song honors Baker’s organic and populist activist philosophy of ordinary people working at the grassroots to create a more humane nation.

The story of Mildred and Richard Loving whose decade-long fight to live their lives, follow their hearts, and stay in their home culminated in the 1967 landmark case Loving v. Virginia that struck down laws against interracial marriage in the United States follows this sentiment.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter grew up in a rural community in Caroline County, Virginia. Despite statewide laws, rules and customs designed to keep the races separate, the Lovings’ community, isolated and agricultural, was quite integrated.

In the face of the long-held sexual taboos at the heart of white supremacist violence, the serendipitously named Lovings fell in love, but unlike others who kept such relationships hidden, in 1958 they drove to Washington, D.C., where they could legally get married.

The Lovings kept to themselves, but eventually word got out about their marriage. “Somebody talked,” Richard Loving said. Weeks later, they were arrested for violating Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act after a late night bedroom raid by the local sheriff, who was hoping to catch them having sex, which was also illegal. The Lovings pled guilty in January 1959 and were sentenced to one year in prison, but their sentence was suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return together for 25 years. They couple moved to the District of Colombia, but longed to go home to the community they knew and loved. Five years later, in 1964, Mildred Loving sought relief by writing Attorney General Robert Kennedy and asking for help. Kennedy referred them to the American Civil Liberties Union, and three years later the Supreme Court unanimously ruled race-based legal restrictions on marriage unconstitutional.

The recently released film Loving, written and directed by Jeff Nichols and based on the wonderful 2011 documentary The Loving Story by Nancy Buirski, powerfully and artfully tells this story and testifies to the ability of feature films to take on historical subjects and add to public understanding of the past without fabricating events and misleading viewers.

Buirski, who will to be a part of the upcoming History Film Forum, which the National Museum of American History produces with its partner the National Endowment for the Humanities, conceived of the idea of turning her documentary into a feature film and reached out to Colin Firth, one of the film’s executive producers.

The resulting drama remained very much committed to sticking to the facts, but attempted to use the tactics of Hollywood storytelling, rather than archival film and expert testimony to get at the heart of the story. Its commitment to accuracy, rejection of sensationalized additions, and desire to tell the story with a quietness and austerity apposite to the Lovings themselves is refreshing. The couple you meet in the film are the same unassuming people visible in the archival footage and still photos in Buirski’s documentary, shy and cautious, but committed—mostly to each other, their family and their home, but gradually, also, to the American ideal of freedom and how they might sacrifice to help others like them in generations to come.

“We could go away,” Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) says, “but it’s the principle . . .  it’s the law, I don’t think it’s right.”

One might wonder, could such a film, depicting not the courtroom drama and not contrived cross burnings or car chases, but simply the regular elements of life the Lovings sought so desperately to have—making a home, living near their families, raising children and nurturing the deep love they had for one another—really draw audiences to theaters?

The almost alarmingly meticulous casting of Nichols’ film and the understated, expertly artful portrayals of the Lovings by Negga and Joel Edgeton, perfectly captures the essence and the vision Ella Baker had for activism, without in any way compromising the history.

When we look back at the freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s, we rarely get to see what spurred on the moments of activism we remember as history. Films of that era give us visuals of sit-ins at lunch counters or bus stations, and trying to register to vote. But we don’t see what happened before the protest.

Activists I have interviewed, like the Greensboro Four, Jim Zwerg, who participated in the Freedom Rides, or even Rosa Parks, often cite the moment they realized segregation was keeping them from just living and decided to act. What first impelled their action was not a speech they heard at a church mass meeting or on television, but something that happened to them or their family.

When a person is told she can’t drink at a water fountain or attend a school, that becomes the moment. Or, when a whole row of black people on a bus are told to stand up and move so that a white man does not have to stand, or even sit across the aisle, from a black person, that becomes the moment.

Most of these situations revolved around social situations. Dining, drinking, swimming, traveling, making friends at school—these were the controls white supremacists used to maintain the social order.

Racists like Birmingham’s Bull Connor would rail against integration saying, “You’ve got to keep the black and the white separate,” or that the “corruption of blood” and the “mongrel breed of citizens” would result. 

If people spent social time as equals, like the old saying went, “it could lead to dancing.” Segregation rules and laws of this sort were also some of the most egregiously hurtful for black people.

I remember my father telling me a story so painful and private he only told it to me once and guarded the memory like some of the agonizing moments from his experience as an infantry soldier in World War II. Growing up in Detroit, in the 1920s and '30s, segregation was not enforced by law as it was in the South, but my dad would have seen elements of white supremacy still obviously present in housing, employment and in recreational opportunities.

The 1943 race riot in Detroit, in fact, began on a warm Sunday evening in June at Belle Isle Park, a beautiful recreational area in the Detroit River designed by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmstead. 

One hot summer day in Detroit, my father and his brother went off to swim at a new privately run pool on the east side of the city. My dad as a youngster had wavy, light brown—nearly blonde—hair and blue eyes, while his older brother had dark skin. When they arrived at the pool, my dad went in easily while my uncle was turned away. Racist and unjust episodes like that from my father’s childhood and later from his time in Alabama in basic training during the war impacted his view of America throughout his life. The strong influence of such experiences, I think, came chiefly from the intrusion of prejudice and hegemony into the private spheres of life.

In both recent films about the Lovings, you see what they wanted to do and what they were being restricted from doing, living their lives. When I first saw the documentary with its archival footage of the unassuming Mildred and the taciturn Richard, my first thought was “why couldn’t they just leave these people alone?”

After all, they didn’t want to be heroes, but just to be happy. The Lovings in Nichols’ film are similarly committed mostly to the life they envisioned for themselves when they married. The beautiful filmmaking ratifies this, gorgeously portraying the home from which they were banished, where they wished their children could grow up, experiencing what Wordsworth called “splendour in the grass,” rather than the city life in D.C. 

Like many of the real heroes of the period, they didn’t seek to be the protagonists in epic battles that would change America. They were forced by circumstances, like Virginia’s law that voided any marriage that included only one white person, which it defined as a person who “has no trace whatever of any blood other than Caucasian,” to action that would affect not only themselves but all Americans.

Loving does a wonderful job of showing, through the love Mildred and Richard had for each other, how powerfully motivating such simple forces can be.

About Christopher Wilson
Christopher Wilson

Christopher Wilson is Director of the African American History Program and Experience and Program Design at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He has created several major program series at the Smithsonian including the award-winning educational theater program History Alive!, the National Youth Summit, and the History Film Forum.

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