MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We heard today of the passing of a woman who became known as the matriarch of legal interracial marriage. Forty-one years ago the Supreme Court's landmark Loving decision struck down all laws designed to prevent marriage across races. The Loving case was not named for the bond between married couples. It was named for Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and a white man who fought for the right to live as husband and wife in their home state of Virginia. Mildred Loving died on Friday at the age of 68.

Those who knew Mildred Loving said she would have eschewed that matriarch title. She was shy and quiet and avoided publicity, even as her legal battle made its way to the Supreme Court. Bernard Cohen is one of two lawyers who argued the Loving case before the Supreme Court.

Mr. BERNARD COHEN (Attorney): 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 interference from the officialdom.

NORRIS: Mildred Jitter and Richard Loving grew up on the same country road in Merle, Caroline County, Virginia. In 1958 they were married in Washington D.C. A few years later they returned to Virginia, where they were arrested, jailed and banished from the state for violating Virginia's Racial Integrity Act. Again, Bernard Cohen.

Mr. COHEN: They woke up in the middle of the night to see the sheriff and five deputies standing around their bed shining flashlights in to their faces. And Richard Loving ran to the dresser, where their marriage certificate existed and said, Look, we're married. And the sheriff said, Not in this state you're not.

NORRIS: Mildred Loving spent the past nearly three decades living as a widow. Her husband Richard died in car accident in 1975. Though it is in no way an official holiday, the June 12th anniversary of the Loving decision is celebrated by many people who are in interracial marriages or are the product of interracial marriages. Ken Tanabe is the founder of the Loving Day Project and he joins us now. Welcome to the program, Mr. Tanabe.

Mr. KEN TANABE (Founder, Loving Day Project): Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: What's the legacy of the Loving decision? How do we see that in everyday life?

Mr. TANABE: First of all, it's worth mentioning that the Loving decision ended about four hundred years of history of laws. That being said, the legacy today is really - it's like Brown vs. Board of Education, in the sense that we should learn about it, it should be taught, and people should keep it in mind when they're considering the situation for interracial couples and their children today.

NORRIS: So how do you celebrate on June 12th?

Mr. TANABE: Well, that's the beauty of it. It's really quite flexible. Loving Day, the idea is that people can celebrate it in any way that they see fit. In New York we host a huge barbecue outdoors for usually about a thousand people. But people can celebrate with their friends and family, a backyard barbecue, you know, a picnic in the park, a dinner party, anything they like, really. As long as it's around June 12th and everyone who is invited knows the purpose of the occasion.

NORRIS: Why do you promote Loving Day celebration? Now that interracial marriages are much more common, is it more accepted now?

Mr. TANABE: I believe it is, but I also believe that prejudice is very much still in existence. I think it's important to use the holiday as a way to sort of acknowledge that racism still exists and that we have problems to work through still.

NORRIS: How do you view Mildred and Richard Loving, Mildred in particular?

Mr. TANABE: Honestly, to me they're sort of heroes. I'm the product of an interracial marriage myself and I wonder how my life would have gone or even if I would have been here at all if they hadn't, you know, argued this case and eventually gotten that right for all of us. But I know that themselves, they were very modest people, they weren't out to crusade, they really just were looking to live together and live the way they wanted to.

NORRIS: Ken, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. TANABE: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Ken Tanabe is the founder of the Loving Day Project. Mildred Loving passed away on Friday. She was 68 years old.

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