Just 45 years ago, marriage between two people of different races was illegal in America, this exhibition in New York, documents the marriage between two people, Richard and Mildred Loving, who helped change this law and America for good.
Even though it was only 45 years ago, 1960’s America was a very different time to today, and sixteen states in America still prohibited interracial marriage, meaning a marriage between two people of different races was 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.’ Following the ruling, there was a 448 per cent increase in the number of interracial marriages in Georgia alone.
In 2007, 32 years after her husband died, Mrs Loving – who herself passed away the following year – released a statement in support of same-sex marriage. She said: ‘Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry ‘I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.’
Photographs of their content family life and grapple with the law were unearthed by director Nancy Buirski during the making of a documentary about the pair. Twenty of the prints will be exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York City, from January 20 until May 6. They are on loan by the estate of Grey Villet and by the Loving family.
South African–born Villet (1927–2000) created some of LIFE magazine’s most poignant photo essays during his seventeen-year tenure. He and his wife, the writer Barbara Cummiskey Villet, collaborated on some of the finest in-depth stories ever to appear in the magazine, including The Lash of Success (1961), a look at one man’s journey to wealth and success, and a year-long investigation of the Levi Smith family of Vermont, which ran in fifty pages’ worth of installments (1966). The Villets also published two books: Those Whom God Chooses (New York: Viking Press, 1966) and Blood River (New York: Everest House, 1982).
This exhibition was made possible with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
January 20 – May 6, 2012
Tuesday–Wednesday: 10:00 am–6:00 pm
Thursday–Friday: 10:00 am–8:00 pm
Saturday–Sunday: 10:00 am–6:00 pm
Closed: New Year’s Day, January 1;
Independence Day, July 4; Thanksgiving Day; Christmas, December 25