Virginia may tout itself as the state for lovers today, but that was not the case for Richard Perry and Mildred Jeter Loving. On June 2, 1958, Mildred Jeter, a woman of African and Native American descent, and Richard Loving, a white man, went to Washington, D.C., and got married. The couple then returned to their Caroline County, Va., home to begin their life as husband and wife, but it was not to be.

In the wee hours of July 14, 1958, the couple was awakened in their bedroom by the county sheriff and two deputies who arrested them for miscegenation. Though they had married legally in Washington, Virginia was one of 21 of states in which interracial marriage and cohabitation was illegal.

The Lovings pled guilty to the charges and were sentenced to a year in jail. Their sentence was suspended on the condition that they be banished as a couple from the state of Virginia. Judge Leon M. Bazile said, “If God had meant for whites and Blacks to mix, he would have not placed them on different continents.” Bazile told the couple that they would be ruled as felons for the rest of their lives.

The Lovings spent the next nine years trying to get back home to Virginia.

The pair had no idea that their fight to be together as a married couple would become such a legal problem. Blacks and whites in Virginia seemed to get along without much incident. After reconstruction, Southern states went to great lengths to define the races. Though Blacks and whites seemed to mix with apparent ease, Virginia had a racial integrity act, which was really an act of racial segregation, enforced by law and with violence.

The exiled couple relocated to Washington. They had three children: Sidney, Peggy and Donald. But the family had a difficult time adjusting to city life and continued to sneak back to Virginia.

“The children didn’t have anywhere to play. It was like being caged and I couldn’t stand it,” Mildred Loving said in “The Loving Story,” a documentary.

When their youngest child, Donald, was hit by a car, it was the last straw.

On June 20, 1963, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking for help. Kennedy replied, referring her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

ACLU lawyers Bernard S. Cohen and Phillip J. Hirschkop took on the complicated case. Because the Lovings had pled guilty, they could not legally appeal the original ruling. The lawyers tried in vain to vacate Bazile’s decision.

In 1963, Bazile said, “Almighty God created the races-white, Black, yellow, malay and red-and he placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference of his arrangements, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Cohen and Hirschkop appealed, but when the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the ruling of the lower court, the Lovings’ case found itself on the docket of the Supreme Court.

Bazile’s archaic and racist language proved to be fuel for the Lovings’ case.

Supreme Court arguments began on April 10, 1967, in the case of Loving v. Virginia. The Lovings’ lawyers argued that the law against interracial marriage was in fact a slavery law, designed to deny the Negro race basic fundamental rights.

“The laws are simply relics of slavery and they are maintained to keep the colored person down and the white person up,” Cohen said.

The state argued that such laws were in place to protect the rights of children. But the law was, in fact, about preserving the white race and denying Negro rights. Interracial couples were not entitled to spousal benefits or inheritance, and neither were their children.

The Lovings did not appear in court during the case; they were living secretly in Virginia and did not want publicity. They tried their best to keep a low profile.

Cohen recalled talking to Richard Loving about the different argument they would use to support his case. His reply was simple and straight to the heart of the matter: he said, “Mr. Cohen, tell the court I love my wife and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”

“I wasn’t involved with the Civil Rights Movement-I only knew what I saw on the news. We were trying to get back to Virginia. That was our goal,” Mildred Loving said.

The Lovings got their victory on June 12, 1967, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled, “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides within the individual and cannot be infringed on by the state. These convictions must be reversed. It is so ordered.”

And with those words delivered by Justice Earl Warren, miscegenation laws were repealed in 16 states. Despite the ruling, some states remained slow to act-Alabama was the last to do so in 2000.

Grey Villet, a staff photographer for LIFE magazine, documented the couple in April of 1965, capturing quiet, provocative images of an American family.

Villet’s widow, Barbara, spoke with the AmNews about her husband’s work on the project. “He exuded respect for people. He didn’t play big. He worked only with available light. He never posed. He never manipulated. He stayed quiet. Working with him was just astounding because he would just disappear when he worked. That’s what works when the subject is not thinking about the camera,” she said.

“The Lovings adjusted to his non-presence,” she continued. “He went off to shoot in April of 1965. Our daughter was born in March and was so jaundiced that she had to be hospitalized. He had to go down to shoot the Lovings’ essay when she was still very sick. He was sensitive to the kids at that time because his own daughter was in jeopardy, and I think that’s behind the affection that you see, the tenderness that you see, the exuberance of the kids. They were lively and happy. A good home was behind them.

“Grey focused right in on the love story because that’s what was underneath. He did not bother with the civil rights drama. It was really all about the right to be in love with each other,” she said.

“The Loving Story” is an acclaimed documentary film. It’s a combination of 50 of Villet’s images, footage shot by Hope Ryden and interviews with family and friends, including the Lovings’ daughter Peggy, who gave Villet’s prints to the director.

Nancy Buirski wrote, directed and produced the beautiful, quiet and powerful documentary film.

“I discovered the story of Mildred Loving when I read her obituary in May of 2008,” she told the AmNews.

“I knew something about Loving v. Virginia but not a lot. I knew nothing of the people who were behind that case. I was struck by the fact that this is an important race story, an important legal story and also a profound love story. As a filmmaker, that’s the kind of narrative you’re looking for. You’re blessed when you find a story as compelling as the Loving story was. I was also aware that it had not been told before.

“It’s a quiet film, a gentle film, but it’s also a very poignant film that leaves people with a lot of feelings at the end of it. I do think that one leaves feeling immense empathy for this couple, gratitude to them-respect for two individuals who were utterly normal but very noble. It reminds you that anyone can change history.

“We’ve had so many people attend our screenings who have talked about how they went through this, how they feel connected to the story and how we finally told their story. It’s fascinating. This is one piece of history that has not been dealt with very much and people feel gratified to us for doing so,” Buirski said.

The Lovings didn’t set out to make history. They just wanted to live together as husband and wife in the Virginia countryside they loved. But their story demonstrates how the power of love, with a little help from a few good people, can make a big difference.

Villet’s images of the Lovings are on display at the International Center for Photography at 1133 Sixth Ave. as part of the exhibit, “The Loving Story: Photographs by Grey Villet,” on view now through May 6.

Watch the HBO Documentary Films presentation of “The Loving Story,” which premieres Feb. 14 on HBO.