Many people know the history of the 1958 Virginia interracial marriage between Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving thanks to a 2011 HBO documentary film and a 2016 dramatic film based on the earlier documentary.
In brief, the Lovings were wed in DC, moved back to Caroline County, Virginia, and were rousted out of bed and jailed by the sheriff for being interracially married.
Judge Leon Bazile of Virginia’s 15th circuit court convicted the couple and ordered them to leave the state.
Back in DC, Mildred wrote to the then US Attorney General Robert Kennedy seeking relief from Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.
Kennedy replied saying that the couple should seek the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which soon appeared in the form of two young and inexperienced lawyers named Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkopf.
The young legal duo knew from the start that they had a major case on their hands, though it took them years to carry it through the Virginia and Federal court systems all the way to the Supreme Court.
Finally, on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for the Lovings and against Virginia. With that ruling, anti-miscegenation laws in 16 US states fell forever.
Local author and history professor Peter Wallenstein has published two books about the Loving case: “Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law – An American History” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) and “Race, Sex, and the Freedom to Marry: Loving v. Virginia” (University Press of Kansas, 2014).
In February 2017, to celebrate locally its 50th anniversary, Wallenstein presented a lively and entertaining talk about the Loving case at the Odd Fellows Hall in Blacksburg.
That hall was the local black community social center in the Jim Crow era and is now a facility of the Blacksburg Museum. It’s where the Blacksburg soul food events are held these days.
Sitting at one of the tables in the Odd Fellows Hall before the talk started, I chatted with Joe, a young black man originally from Chesapeake, Virginia, and his friend Karen, a young Jewish woman originally from upstate New York.
I told them that I knew something of the Loving case and that several years ago I had served as the marriage officiant for an interracial couple.
Virginia law is such that any citizen in good standing can apply to a circuit court, pay a small fee, receive the approval of a judge and the proper court order, and officiate at a marriage.
Time passed and I lost contact with Joe and Karen. Then, out-of-the-blue, about six months ago, I got an email from one of the staff at the Blacksburg Museum asking if I had attended the Wallenstein lecture and was I involved with the newspaper and also a wedding officiant?
Yes, I was. That answer soon led to a communication from Joe and Karen who paid me the great compliment of asking me to be their wedding officiant.
The marriage took place back in May because Joe had landed a new job at Bellarmine College in Louisville and life was getting complicated with changes. The formal ceremony with all the guests and fanfare was deferred to September.
It happened on the lawn of the Inn at Virginia Tech with about 120 relatives and friends in attendance, divided equally between black and white people.
Joe and Karen had worked hard on the language for the ceremony. My job was mostly to deliver it well.
However, I did add one wrinkle. Many years ago, when my wife lived in Alexandria, she was involved in some causes with Bernie Cohen and knew him quite well.
On the morning of the wedding I suggested to her that we call Bernie and tell him what I was about to do.
We did, and Bernie was most enthusiastic. He and his wife sent greetings and good wishes to the bride and groom. I transmitted those greetings and good wishes during the ceremony.
My strong impression was just how congenial and friendly the entire wedding event was.
It seems to me that there is far too much public ugliness today surrounding racial issues in America. Absolutely nothing of that was apparent at the wedding.
I am left with the optimistic opinion that America is going to turn out okay. If it indeed does, then the Loving victory will have played its part in that success.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.