Standing on the porch of their rural Virginia farmhouse, on the sofa with their three children, or watching a drag race, Richard and Mildred Loving look like a married couple in love. However, in the eyes of the law, their love was criminal.
Richard was white and Mildred was of African-American and Native-American descent. When they wed in 1958, it was in violation of anti-miscegenation laws, which criminalized interracial marriages and cohabitation. They were a humble couple that just wanted to be together–and that desire thrust them to the center of one of the most pivotal civil rights court cases of the 20th century.
The Lovings endured harassment by local law enforcement, uprooted their lives to live in a state that didn’t have anti-miscegenation laws (Virginia was one of 24 states that had these discriminatory and unjust policies, when the couple married), brought their case–with help from the ACLU–to state court and eventually all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in 1967, ruled that those laws were unconstitutional.
On assignment for Life magazine, photographer Grey Villet (1927–2000) spent the spring of 1965 with Richard (who died in 1975) and Mildred (who died in 2008), capturing their story of love, devotion, and perseverance. The photo essay, called “The Crime of Being Married,” appeared in Life‘s March 18, 1966, issue.
Villet captured the couple’s every move for months: Trips to the grocery store, family gatherings, story time with the kids, and meetings with lawyers. It depicted the couple as good, everyday people–not lawbreakers. While photojournalism related to civil rights often focused on marches, sit-ins, and protests, Villet’s images offered an intimate look at a family and brought their warmth and affection to a mainstream audience, perhaps changing a few folks’ minds about segregation by appealing to their empathy.
Only a handful of Villet’s photos made it into Life‘s story, but he also sent dozens more to Mildred as a personal gift. Those images are included in The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017), the first book that shows Villet’s essay in its entirety.
Loving v. Virginia was one of the most pivotal civil rights cases of the 20th century, and it even set precedents for legalizing same-sex marriage. However, Richard and Mildred were reluctant protagonists in this narrative. What they cared about most was each other, and finding a way to live peacefully together. “We have thought about other people, but we are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones,” Richard told Life. “We are doing it for us—because we want to live here.”
In 2007, on occasion of the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, Mildred spoke about the impact of her court case. “My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right,” she said. “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.”
Taken in the context of today, when civil liberties are sadly still under siege, Villet’s photos of the Lovings are a powerful reminder of the individuals impacted by discriminatory and unjust policy. See a handful of his images in the slide show above.