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Attorney in landmark case remembers representing the Lovings, a Caroline County interracial couple
A plaque and quill memorialize Cohen's appearance before the United States Supreme Court, where he successfully argued against Virginia's law barring interracial marriage.
MIKE MORONES/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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BY HUGH MUIR
Bernard S. Cohen had been practicing law for only two years when he received the phone call that thrust him into a Virginia case that would change American society.
It was 1964, and the ACLU office in Washington called him to pass on a special request from Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They wanted the 30-year-old Alexandria attorney to take on Virginia's ban on interracial marriage.
"That's probably over my head," Cohen told the ACLU officials.
"It's not," they replied. "Set up a visit."
The case involved a Caroline County couple: Richard Loving was white; Mildred Loving was black. They had been married in June 1958, arrested a few weeks later at their home in Central Point and convicted of miscegenation the following year.
Their sentence was banishment from the state for 25 years, with the penalty of a year in prison if they returned earlier. After five years in exile, Mildred Loving wrote Kennedy asking for his help under the recently passed Civil Rights Act.
The Lovings were living in Washington. They wanted to go home.
"Because the Lovings were banished from Virginia, I had our first meeting at a friend's law office in Washington," Cohen recalled recently.
"After I listened to them, I told them I thought this case could wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I also thought it was a winner. It was a perfect case."
Cohen was right. Forty years ago Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a historic decision that struck down laws in Virginia and across the nation forbidding interracial marriage.A flash of light
Before Cohen could appeal the Virginia ruling, he had to get the case back on a court docket. At that time, he faced the procedural rules of the laws of Virginia.
A motion to reopen a case had to be filed within 120 days of a judge's finding of guilt. Caroline Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Bazile had issued his banishment ruling against the Lovings in January 1959, more than five years before Cohen got the assignment.
"Nobody could think of a way to get the case back before the court," Cohen said.