The Real Story Behind Loving: How an Interracial Couple's Landmark Fight for Their Right to Wed Made History — and Inspired the Film Earning Oscar Buzz
Loving depicts Richard and Mildred Loving's fight to protect their marriage
With a perfect last name amid imperfect circumstances, Richard and Mildred Loving made history when their fight for the state of Virginia to recognize their interracial marriage made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1967.
Now, their love story is making headlines again, with a screen adaptation of their odyssey, simply titled Loving, generating early Oscar buzz after earning rave reviews at this year’s film-festival circuit.
But just who were Richard and Mildred Loving (portrayed onscreen by Australian actor Joel Edgerton and Ethiopian-born Ruth Negga)? Here are five things to know about the reluctant civil rights heroes ahead of the movie’s release on Nov. 4.
1. They Were Arrested in Their Bedroom Five Weeks After Their Wedding
The Lovings were married on July 11, 1958, and were arrested five weeks later when the county sheriff and two deputies burst into their bedroom in the early morning hours.
The officers reportedly acted on an anonymous tip, and when Mildred Loving told them she was his wife, the sheriff reportedly responded, “That’s no good here.”
“I felt such outrage on their behalf, like many others, that the simple act of wanting to be married to another human being would incur the wrath of the law and also make people really angry. So angry — violently angry. I was just so shocked by that,” Negga told PEOPLE.
2. The Couple Initially Pleaded Guilty to Violating the Racial Integrity Act
Although the couple lawfully wed in Washington, D.C., their union was not recognized in Virginia, which was one of 24 states that banned interracial marriage. The couple initially pleaded guilty to violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act, with a local judge reportedly telling them that if God had meant whites and blacks to mix, he would not have placed them on different continents.
The judge allowed them to flee the state of Virginia in lieu of spending a year in prison. The couple settled in Washington D.C., which despite being only a couple hours away from home, “felt like an entirely different universe,” Loving director Jeff Nichols explains. For the next five years the Lovings lived in exile while they raised their three children: Donald, Peggy, and Sidney.
3. Mildred Enlisted the Help of Robert F. Kennedy
Finally in 1967, tired of the city and emboldened by the civil rights movement, Mildred wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert. F. Kennedy for help. Kennedy referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to take the case.
The ACLU assigned a young volunteer lawyer, Bernie Cohen, to the case. Cohen, played by Nick Kroll in the film, had virtually no experience with the type of law the Lovings’ case required, so he sought help from another young ACLU volunteer attorney, Phil Hirschkop. “He had no background at all in this type of work, not civil rights, constitutional law or criminal law,” Hirschkop tells PEOPLE of Cohen.
Hirschkop and Cohen represented the Lovings in appeals to both district and appellate courts. After losing both appeals, they took the case to the Supreme Court.
4. The Supreme Court’s Ruling Struck Down the Country’s Last Segregation Laws
The case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1967, with the judges unanimously ruling in the couple’s favor. Their decision wiped away the country’s last remaining segregation laws. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the court’s opinion, just as he did in 1954 when the court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were illegal.
Never ones for the spotlight, Mildred and Richard declined to attend the Supreme Court hearing. “[We] are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones,” Richard told LIFE magazine in an article published in 1966. “We are doing it for us — because we want to live here.”
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5. The Couple Remained Married Until Richard’s Death in 1975
Just eight years after the Supreme Court decision, Richard Loving died in a car accident. Mildred Loving died of pneumonia in 2008. A year before her death, she acknowledged the 40th anniversary of the ruling, and expressed her support for gays and lesbians to have the right to marry, per the Times.
“The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone, they have a right to marry,” she said in a public statement.
Peggy Loving Fortune, the Lovings’ last surviving child, told PEOPLE that she was “overwhelmed with emotion” after seeing Negga and Edgerton’s performance in the film. She added, “I’m so grateful that [my parents’] story is finally being told.”
(Originally published on May 17, 2016.)