Thursday, March 30, 2017

Loving vs Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

Loving vs. Virginia is touted as a "documentary novel" about the famous civil rights case which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the United States. Mildred Jeter, a young black woman of mixed ethnicity, married Richard Loving in Washington, D.C. in 1958. The returned to their home in Virginia and were arrested five weeks later. In 1967, their case went to the United States Supreme Court. The court's decision, issued on June 12, 1967, overturned their conviction of violating Virginia's laws on miscegenation. At the time of the ruling in 1967, all sixteen southern states had laws forbidding interracial marriage.

Patricia Mruby Powell's novel in verse tells Mildred and Richard's story while also presenting "bites" of background historical information in the form of pictures, quotes and brief articles. The story is told in the alternating narratives of Mildred and Richard.

The story opens in the fall of 1952 in Central Point, Caroline county, Virginia where Mildred Jeter lives with her mother, stepfather, her older sister Garnet and seven brothers.  Mildred attends Sycamore School, her brother Lewis is in grade 1, Garnet is in grade 7, and Mildred is in grade 6. It is a one room school with all the grades sharing. The Jeter ancestors have lives in Central Point for centuries; her parents are part Indian as well as descended  from African slaves and their owners. In the spring Mildred's family plants a garden of corn, string beans and greens, they have their own cow for milk and make their own butter, and slaughter their own hogs and chickens. On the weekends, folks come to the Jeter household: Mildred's big brother's Theo, Edward, Richard, George and James, Otha and their friends come. They play softball in the field. When darkness falls, Mildred's father brings out his banjo, and her brothers play guitar, fiddles and mandolins. Soon everyone is laughing and dancing as one of the fathers calls a square dance.

"If I stop and watch
I see young and old --
Indians, Negroes, Whites --
all mixed together.

Everyone likes each other
in our neighborhood.
Everyone dancing

During the fall of 1952, while driving home in his friend Ray's car, Ray and Richard are stopped by Sheriff R. G. Brooks. Sheriff Brooks hates colored and he questions Ray calling him "boy" but Richard who is white is called "son". Brooks doesn't much like Richard either partly because he hangs around the coloreds and also because his father drives a truck for P.E. Boyd Byrd, a colored farmer known to be very good-natured.

In October 1955, Mildred is a freshman at Union High School. She loves school and plans to graduate, unlike her older brothers, Otha and Theo who have dropped out to work. At a dance at their neighbor's, the Fortunes, Mildred and Otha dance up a storm. Richard Loving notices Mildred and insists on driving her and her family home. That night Garnet suggests to Millie that Richard likes her. Her observation is proven when Richard takes everyone to the drive-in a few nights later. He tells Mildred that he offered to take everyone because he knew she might turn him down. They have their first kiss!

In the fall of October 1955 Richard and Millie's relationship continues to grow. In the spring of 1956 Millie is back at school. Richard comes regularly to see her. People don't like that Richard is with Millie and sometimes they hear comments, but Richard tells her that it would be worse if he was black and she was white. He would be lynched. In September 1958, Millie realizes she pregnant and she's terrified she will lose Richard. She tells him one night after Millie is refused entrance into a square dance Millie's father and brother's band is performing at. The dance is at Sparta school, the white elementary school Richard once attended. Richard is upset and drives her home. In January of 1957, with Richard's mother Lola Loving attending her, Millie gives birth to a beautiful little boy she names Sidney. In February 1957, Richard visits Millie, apologizing for abandoning her and asks her to take him back. He meets his little son.

In May of 1957 Sheriff Brooks harasses Richard and Millie, pulling them over when they are out driving. He warns Richard not to break the law and to "take that little Negress home where she belongs." Richard meets Millie's family in June of 1957. In April 1958 Millie finds herself pregnant once again. At first Richard seems upset but when Millie presses him he tells her they need to find out her due date so they can make plans to marry. This makes Millie very happy because she knows Richard will stay.

Richard's decision to marry Millie doesn't sit well with his best friend Ray who encourages Richard to do what others have done and simply live next door to her. But Richard believes that Millie deserves better. Ray challenges Richard telling him he can't marry Millie because it's illegal and that the sheriff will never let it go.  Meanwhile Millie who is now five months pregnant, her baby due in October, quits school.

Richard and Millie along with family drive to Washington, D.C., first doing the paperwork at City Hall. They go to the preacher's house and are married. Richard knows Millie doesn't know they are breaking the law by getting married. He hopes that once they return home to Virginia they'll be forgotten. But on July 11, 1958, Richard and Millie go to bed on a hot, sticky Virginia summer night only to be awakened by Sheriff Brooks shining a light in their faces. Richard tells the sheriff they are married and points to the marriage certificate on the bedroom wall. The sheriff tells them not in Virginia and both Richard and Millie are taken to jail.

Richard is put in a cell with other men and the next morning is bailed out by his sister. He is told if he bails Millie out he will be re-arrested. Millie is in a cell upstairs. Alone for days and pregnant she worries she might have her baby in the rat infested jail. She is visited by her mother who tells her that her brothers and father can't come because they believe they will be arrested. On her seventh day in jail Millie is bailed out by her daddy who pays her $1000 bond. Millie goes to live at her parents home, Richard as his parent's home. She learns that she and Richard can't be married because race mixing is forbidden and illegal. Richard visits Millie secretly and tells her he will come again. This reassures Millie that he won't abandon her. In October Millie gives birth to a baby boy whom Richard names Donald. After her hearing Millie, Richard and their two children Sidney and Donald move to Washington, D.C. to live with Millie's cousin Alex.

In January, 1959 Mildred and Richard return to Virginia for their hearing at the Bowling Green Courthouse. On the advice of their lawyer, Mr. Beazley, they plead guilty and Judge Bazile sentences them to one year in jail or a suspended sentence for twenty-five years if they leave Caroline County and the state of Virginia immediately and do not return together for those twenty-five years. Upset Millie asks Beazley if they can return in twenty-five years and he tells them likely not as they could be sentenced to another twenty-five years. He suggests they go visit their families but do not stay together overnight. However, when they try to return for Easter 1959, Richard staying at his parents and Millie along with the children at her parents, Sheriff Brooks forces them to come to the jail. Their lawyer talks to Judge Bazile and they are released but they must leave immediately.

Mildred and Richard spend the next years living in Washington, D.C. with Alex. Richard works in Caroline County. Millie delivers their third child, Peggy at her mother's home with the help of Lola Loving. In the summer of 1963, Millie, fed up with living in the city, missing her family and watching her husband have to commute daily, decides to act. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, she decides to write Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy. He tells her to contact the ACLU in Washington. Mildred and Richard meet with an ACLU lawyer, Mr. Cohen and set in motion a course of action that ultimately changes their lives forever.


Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrator Shadra Strickland have crafted a remarkable book that informs readers about the journey of Mildred Jeter Loving and Richard Loving to live their lives as they chose to - as husband and wife. Using interviews, print resources and speaking with friends and family of Richard and Mildred (both of whom have now passed away) Powell presents in historical context, the backstory behind the landmark Loving vs. Virginia case. Richard and Mildred narrate events in first person that occurred through the 1950's and 1960's leading up to the landmark case. Powell uses pages, separate from Richard and Mildred's story, to outline the struggle of African Americans to achieve equal rights.

The novel opens with a timeline beginning with Emancipation in 1865 (slaves are freed) to 1952 when Mildred and Richard's story begins. There is also a reproduction of the 1924 New Virginia Law to Preserve Racial Integrity. The 1950's decade during which Mildred and Richard were growing up was a period where the integration of schools in the United States was intensely opposed. Unbelievably, the state of Virginia chose to close schools rather than integrate black students into white schools. As the civil rights movement picks up steam in the early 1960's Powell has included photographs of sit-ins in white-only restaurants, explanations of the Freedom Riders of 1961 (students who rode public buses in mixed-race groups to protest continued segregation), and quotes and photographs from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches, letters and The March on Washington in 1963.

Mildred Jeter Loving and her husband Richard P. Loving
January 26, 1965
The time was ripe for defeating laws banning interracial marriages in the 1960's. The civil rights movement began building momentum during that decade aided by the determined and charismatic Martin Luther King Jr. When Mildred contacted the ACLU in Washington, she and Richard were contacted by two young, intelligent and inexperienced lawyers determined to win them the right to be married.  Loving vs. Virginia includes a photograph of Mildred and Richard with Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop. Separate pages outline how Cohen and Hirschkop prepared each step of their case that ultimately led them to challenge the Loving's conviction under Virginia's racial purity law in the nation's Supreme Court.

The views of elected officials, most notably Governor George Wallace are presented. Some are quite remarkable to read.When Judge Bazile issued his ruling in the Loving case in January of 1965 he wrote, " Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, malay, and red and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Shadra Strickland illustrated the Loving's story using "a style of illustrative reporting from the Loving's time called visual journalism...Visual journalism was often characterized by a loose, impromptu drawing style that allowed lines to overlap and preserved the informal feeling of sketches in the final composition." Strickland used photographs of the Lovings from Life Magazine as well as from her own mother's childhood in the 1950's to create the illustrations in the novel.

Powell's narratives are believable, capturing the characters of Richard and Mildred. They are portrayed as simple, everyday folk who want to live their lives as they wish. Mildred's fears of being abandoned by Richard and Richard's determination to protect Millie and his love for her are well captured.  As Richard states in one of his narratives, "We just want to live as husband and wife in Virginia." After winning their case, Richard and Mildred were reluctant to attend a press conference, but were persuaded by their lawyers because of the importance of their case.

Despite their win change would continue to come slowly. In 1967 when the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Loving vs. Virginia case, there were sixteen states which still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books. The last law against inter-racial marriages was finally struck off in 2000 in the state of Alabama.

Below is a short video of Richard and Mildred in a interview done by ABC News.

Book Details:

Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell
San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2017
260 pp.

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