Grey Villet

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The love story that changed history: Fascinating photographs of interracial marriage at a time when it was banned in 16 states

Just 45 years ago, 16 states deemed marriages between two people of different races illegal.

But in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the case of Richard Perry Loving, who was white, and his wife, Mildred Loving, of African American and Native American descent.

The case changed history - and was captured on film by LIFE photographer Grey Villet, whose black-and-white photographs are now set to go on display at the International Center of Photography.

Twenty images show the tenderness and family support enjoyed by Mildred and Richard and their three children, Peggy, Sidney and Donald.

The children, unaware of the struggles their parents face, are captured by Villet as blissfully happy as they play in the fields near their Virginia home or share secrets with their parents on the couch.

Their parents, caught sharing a kiss on their front porch, appear more worry-stricken.

And it is no wonder - eight years prior, the pair had married in the District of Columbia to evade the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which banned any white person marrying any non-white person.

But when they returned to Virginia, police stormed into their room in the middle of the night and they were arrested.

The pair were found guilty of miscegenation in 1959 and were each sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for 25 years if they left Virginia.

They moved back to the District of Columbia, where they began the long legal battle to erase their criminal records - and justify their relationship.

Following vocal support from the Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, the Lovings won the fight - with the Supreme Court branding Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional in 1967.

It wrote in its decision: ‘Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival.

'To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law.' [Read more

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Richard and Mildred Loving;

Arrest: June 1958

Charge: Felony

Crime: Interracial marriage

Case: Loving v. State of Virginia 1967

“Forty-five years ago, sixteen states still prohibited interracial marriage. Then, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the case of Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and his wife, Mildred Loving, a woman of African American and Native American descent, who had been arrested for miscegenation nine years earlier in Virginia. The Lovings were not active in the Civil Rights movement but their tenacious legal battle to justify their marriage changed history when the Supreme Court unanimously declared Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law—and all race-based marriage bans—unconstitutional. ” - ICP

 

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© Grey Villet, 1971, Gay rights event

In late 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots in New York sparked the modern gay rights movement in America, and twelve months before LIFE ceased publishing as a weekly, the magazine featured an article on “gay liberation” that, seen a full 40 years later, feels sensational, measured and somehow endearingly, deeply square all at the same time.

For its part, LIFE introduced its 1971 feature in language that certainly feels more “Us vs. Them” than what we might see in a similar article today, but it’s also language that, four decades on, has about it a sense of an old world trying — really trying — to get a handle on the new:

It was the most shocking and, to most Americans, the most surprising liberation movement yet. Under the slogan “Out of the closets and into the streets,” thousands of homosexuals, male and female, were proudly confessing what they had long hidden. They were, moreover, moving into direct confrontation with conventional society. Their battle was far from won. But in 1971 militant homosexuals showed they they were prepared to fight it…They resent what they consider to be savage discrimination against them on the basis of a preference which they did not choose and which they cannot — and do not want to — change. And while mist will admit that “straight” society’s attitudes have caused them unhappiness, they respond to the charge that all homosexuals are guilt-ridden and miserable with the defiant rallying cry “Gay is Good!” (read more)

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The Loving Family. 

Richard and Mildred Loving in 1965.

This beautiful couple was responsible for the breaking of the interracial marriage laws back in the day. I guess you could say that adversity was their middle name. When the state of Virginia denied them the right to tie the knot as well as 15 other states,they finally sealed the deal in Washington D.C and upon their return to their hometown,they faced arrest for their unlawful union and disgraced by the public eye. 

Mildred described herself not to be a political person ,but took her case to the United States Supreme Court in Washington ,getting the full attention of then Attorney General Robert F .Kennedy and the world.The rest is history, but what a way to make it. 

The images above were taken by Grey Villet for a full cover story  for the New York Times.When looking at them I can only think of one word: hope.

A documentary about the Loving family (The Loving Story) by filmmaker Nancy Buirski will be out by February 14. 

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Love Supreme: An Interracial Romance Triumphs in 1960s Virginia

On March 18, 1966, LIFE magazine published a feature under the quietly chilling headline, “The Crime of Being Married.” The article, illustrated with photographs by LIFE’s Grey Villet, told the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a married interracial couple battling Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. Villet’s warm, intimate pictures revealed a close-knit family, including children and grandparents, living their lives in opposition to a patently unjust law — but also captured eloquent moments, gestures and expressions that affirmed just how heavily their defiance weighed on the very private couple. [Read more]