Bernard Cohen, who as a young lawyer successfully argued the Supreme Court case that struck down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages, has died at age 86.
Cohen died Monday in Fredericksburg, Va. The cause was Parkinson’s disease, his family told NPR.
Cohen was an attorney in Alexandria, Va., just a few years out of law school when the American Civil Liberties Union, where he was a volunteer, asked if he would take on the case of Richard and Mildred Loving.
Mildred was Black and Native American, and Richard was white. They had married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was legal. But on returning home to Virginia, they were arrested, jailed and barred from the state for 25 years for violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act.
Cohen took the case, working with co-counsel Philip Hirschkop, and the case went to the highest court in the land. He argued the Lovings and their children had the right to feel protected under the law just like any other family.
“And that is the right of Richard and Mildred Loving to wake up in the morning or to go to sleep at night knowing that the sheriff will not be knocking on their door or shining a light in their face in the privacy of their bedroom for illicit co-habitation,” he told the court.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia overturned the couple’s conviction – and nullified anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and more than a dozen other states. Interracial marriage was now legal in every state in the union.
Rae Cohen, Bernard’s wife of 61 years, remembers events that suggested not everyone in Alexandria was happy with her husband’s role in the case.
“There were a couple little incidents,” she says. “We lived in a house that didn’t have a garage. I found sugar in my gasoline tank one morning.”
“And some nasty phone calls. Your mind wants to forget these things,” she says with a laugh.
The Cohens kept in touch with the Lovings after the case, enjoying visits with Mildred until her death in 2008.
“They were very simple people, who were not interested in winning any civil rights principle,” Bernard Cohen said of the Lovings in a 2007 interview with NPR.
“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. When I told Richard that this case was, in all likelihood, going to go to the Supreme Court of the United States, he became wide-eyed and his jaw dropped,” he remembered.
Bernard Sol Cohen was born in Brooklyn in 1934. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1956 with an economics degree, and from Georgetown Law School four years later. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children Bennett and Karen, as well as three grandchildren.
From 1980 to 1996, Cohen served in the Virginia House of Delegates, as a Democrat representing Alexandria. He pushed for right-to-die legislation, commuter rail in the state, and a ban on smoking indoors in public places. He wasn’t able to get through a ban on smoking in restaurants, his daughter Karen recalls, but managed to get the General Assembly to ban smoking in elevators.
He left the state assembly in 1996 when he decided it had become too negative, his daughter says.
“He had Republican friends and Republican colleagues who he respected and admired and they respected and admired him,” says Karen Cohen. “And he always felt that [you can have] proper polite civil discourse and you can disagree, but there was never any need to be nasty.”
His family says that since his death, there has been an outpouring of remembrances and gratitude.
Some of those messages have been from strangers who have interracial marriages of their own – and say they celebrate “Loving Day” each year on June 12.