CBSN

The couple who shattered the race barrier

Richard P. Loving and his wife, Mildred, pose in this Jan. 26, 1965, file photograph. Residents of Caroline County, Va., the Lovings married in Washington, D.C., in 1958.

AP

Reporters no longer beat a path to the modest white house just over the Caroline County border -- and that's fine with its owner, a soft-spoken 67-year-old who never wanted the fame her marriage brought her.

Born Mildred Jeter, she's known mostly by the name she took when she -- a black woman living in segregated Virginia -- dared break the rules by marrying a white man named Richard Loving.

The union landed the Lovings in jail, and then before the Supreme Court, and finally in the history books; 40 years ago Tuesday, the court ruled in favor of the couple, overturning laws prohibiting interracial unions and changing the face of America.

Mildred Loving is a matriarch to thousands of mixed couples now sprinkled in every city. But she hardly considers herself a hero -- just a girl who once fell in love with a boy.

"It wasn't my doing," Loving told The Associated Press, in a rare interview. "It was God's work."

While the rest of the Jim Crow South struggled to divide the races in the early '50s, blacks and whites in tiny Central Point had long been intertwined. They worked together on farms, raising chickens and tobacco. They drag-raced together.

And often, they were intimate, explained Edward Clarke, who grew up in the town an hour outside Richmond, today little more than vast fields, ragtag homes and weed-choked farm houses.

Standing in the hilly cemetery where Richard Loving is buried, he swept his hand out over markers reading Jeter, Byrd and Fortune -- black folks, he explained, many so pale they could pass for white.

"The white people were just like the black people," said Clarke, himself a black man with clay-colored skin and stick-straight hair. "You lived and survived ... it was a sharing thing."

It was in this setting that a skinny 11-year-old nicknamed "Bean" met a 17-year-old boy who was a family friend, according to Phyl Newbeck, a Vermont author who detailed the case in the 2004 book, "Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers."