Same sex marriage supporter Mildred Loving dies aged 68

7 May 2008

By LISA KEEN, Washington Blade

The woman who started a ball rolling toward knocking down laws banning interracial marriage and who late in life also spoke out against bans on gay marriage has died.


Mildred Loving died Friday, May 2, in Milford, Va. She was 68. The cause of death was not available, but gay activist Mitchell Gold, who met with her a year ago about speaking out against anti-gay marriage laws, said Loving was already quite frail with arthritis and cancer at that time.


Gold, founder of Faith in America, an organization to fight anti-gay religious bigotry, said he and two colleagues visited Loving at her rural Virginia home in early May 2007. They were hoping to persuade her to take part in an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws. Gold said they talked about the Loving case and "what's happening to gay people."


"We asked if she would come to Washington and be a significant part of the celebration," said Gold. He recalled she said she would if she could, "but it was clear her health was failing ... and we didn't know whether she could physically make it." So, instead, said Gold, Loving prepared a statement that was read at the celebration.


In that statement, Loving said, "I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others."


Despite the stark parallels between bans against interracial marriage and those against same-sex marriage, it has not been common for civil rights activists to underscore those similarities. Because of her statement, Loving, who had been very shy about efforts to paint her as a civil rights hero for her legal battle against miscegenation laws, was seen as taking a bold step.


H. Alexander Robinson, head of the National Black Justice Coalition, praised Loving for showing "a great deal of courage" in standing up for same-sex marriages and her "willingness to see the connection between her actions and the right to marry for gay and lesbian couples."


"Mildred Loving defines someone whose life and work as an ordinary person was able to accomplish extraordinary things," said Robinson, "particularly for those of us who live at the intersection of race and sexual orientation. Having her imprimatur on both the legal and social and moral aspects of the case was important."


Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, agreed.


"Sometimes, people challenge the LGBT movement for drawing comparisons with the civil rights advances of other movements," said Davidson. "It's important to have people at the center of such movements to say ... they're related [issues]. She saw part of what she was fighting for was related to" the same-sex marriage struggle.


Loving was only 23 years old when she and her husband Richard were living in exile from their hometown in Virginia because of a conviction for violating the state's law against whites marrying non-whites. They moved to Washington, D.C., rather than spend a year in jail, the penalty for violating the law. That's when Loving wrote a letter to then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy seeking help. He advised her that the newly passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not be of help to them in challenging the law but suggested she contact the American Civil Liberties Union. That led to the historic lawsuit challenging the 40-year-old Virginia law, and similar laws in 19 other states at the time.


The facts of the Loving case also have some striking similarities to those of the Lawrence v. Texas case that struck down sodomy laws in 2003. Richard Loving, who was white, and Mildred, who was black, were arrested in the privacy of their own bedroom in the middle of the night after an anonymous caller tipped off law enforcement officials. And, said Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry group that advocates for same-sex marriage rights, arguments invoked then against interracial marriage were very similar to those invoked now against gay marriage.


"The defenders of the discriminatory laws invoked the Bible, invoked their own view of morality and made similar kinds of claims about the disastrous consequences if interracial couples were treated the same," said Wolfson.

It was the Loving v. Virginia decision, in June 1967, that rendered the legal opinion that "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men," a "basic civil right."


The Loving decision has been referred to numerous times in both the political and legal battles over same-sex marriage bans in recent years. In the historic Goodridge decision, in 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said it was relying on the Loving decision. The California appeals court referred to the Loving case 56 times, but declared that it had no relevance to the same-sex "Marriage Cases," now pending there before the state supreme court.


"The case is cited in almost every legal brief we write on the issue [of same-sex marriage]," said Robinson. The Coalition, in conjunction with Faith in America, put together a video last year to mark the 40th anniversary of Loving, which shows several straight interracial couples, including NAACP Board Chair Julian Bond and his wife Pamela Horowitz, discussing the importance of Loving and its implications for gay and straight couples.


Wolfson said Mildred Loving "was enormously important" both because she paved the way for so much that has followed and because, in her last year, she came out strongly in favor of gay people's freedom to marry, drawing the connections," said Wolfson.


The Loving decision, he said, will be "absolutely important" to the eventual case involving same-sex couples before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Richard Loving died in 1975, following an automobile accident.