In 1958, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter traveled from their home in Central Point, Virginia, to Washington, D.C to get married. Upon their return, Loving, who was white, and Jeter, who was black, were arrested because interracial marriage was still illegal in the state of Virginia (as it was in all Southern states at the time).
The couple was sentenced to a year in prison, a sentence that would be suspended under the condition that they leave the state. They reluctantly complied, but by 1964, they were tired of being unable to visit their families in Virginia, and tired of judges upholding the state’s decision. Mildred wrote a letter of protest to Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General, who directed them towards the D.C.-area chapter of the ACLU and a young lawyer named Bernard Cohen.
Now, their story will hit the big screen.
Loving, a new film from director Jeff Nichols that premiered at Cannes in May, tells the story of Loving and Jeter’s fight for legitimacy, argued in front of the Supreme Court by Bernard “Bernie” Cohen, who was a co-founder of the D.C. chapter of the ACLU. The Brooklyn-born Cohen will be portrayed by Nick Kroll, a first for the actor known for his comedic chops. The trailer for the film, which will premiere in November, was released this week. It stars Joel Edgerton, a frequent Nichols collaborator, as Richard Loving, and Ruth Negga as Mildred Jeter.
For Cohen, who met with Nichols and producer Sarah Green prior to the making of the film, arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court was a quantum leap from what he was used to. He told me on the phone that, prior to Loving v. Virginia, he was involved in cases that required “usually a matter of giving 5 or 10 minutes of time.”
Before Cohen left the Loving’s home to speak on their behalf, he asked Richard if there was anything he’d like to say to the court, and his words were relayed by Cohen: “Tell the Court I love my wife.” As Cohen told NPR a few years ago:
They were very simple people, who were not interested in winning any civil rights principle… They just were in love with one another and wanted the right to live together as husband and wife in Virginia, without any interference from officialdom.
The court decided in the Loving’s favor in 1967, effectively ending racially-based marriage discrimination in the U.S, a huge landmark in the civil rights battles of the 1960s. According to Cohen, “public interest didn’t manifest itself greatly back then,” and save for a few phone calls over the next couple decades (Cohen served in the Virginia House of Delegates during that time), there wasn’t much public attention given to the case.
However, Cohen said it became “a topic of concern when the issue of gay marriage came to the forefront.” In 2007, Cohen co-authored an article for Huffington Post comparing the legal battles of the LGBT community to those he had fought in, writing:
Hopefully, legislators and judges will find their courage, and our nation won’t need too many lawyers working too much longer on behalf of too many couples and their kids before we end ongoing marriage discrimination.
Cohen still has the original papers of the Loving case, and said that “it’s amazing…that nearly 50 years later, it’s still a topic of great concern.”
As for the legacy of the case, Cohen summed it up by saying, “Any good civil rights decision is inspiring, as far as I’m concerned.”