Armstrong: Go see 'Loving' and take the kids, too

People Paper columnist Jenice Armstrong with students from Science Leadership Academy before a screening of the new film "Loving."

THE FACT that Americans were once imprisoned for having sex with or marrying someone of another race seems like ancient history.

It's really not, though.

Just ask Earni Young, a Wynnefield resident who experienced something similar to what happened to Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple forced out of Virginia in 1958 because they had married. They went on to file legal challenges to their exile and won. The ruling in their landmark Supreme Court case against the Commonwealth of Virginia struck down the nation's laws preventing interracial marriage.

Young had all but forgotten her ugly incident, but hype surrounding the new film Loving, based on the couple's lives, brought it all back to her. She shared her story on Facebook last week.

"I was 20 and serving in the U.S. Navy at Norfolk Naval Base. My best friend and I were both dating fellow sailors who happened to be white," recalled Young, who is African American. "The guys had just returned from a six-week cruise, and we were celebrating with a romantic weekend off base.

"My boyfriend and I had returned to the hotel room after a nice dinner and concert. I had barely removed my shoes when there was a knock at the door. It was two vice cops, who immediately arrested us for violating Virginia's miscegenation law," Young wrote. "We were handcuffed and taken to jail. My girlfriend and I were also accused of prostitution - why else would two white men be with two black women?"

"I had never been in a jail cell before," recalled Young, who had been terrified about how Navy commanders would react to her arrest.

It took a bit, but the incident eventually blew over, and Young, now 70, continued on with her life. She returned to school and later became a journalist, eventually writing for the Daily News and the Bulletin. Young is looking forward to seeing Loving after it opens Friday at the Ritz Five. The movie will be in more local theaters later.

Everyone should go see it. This is one that you should take your kids to and take other people's kids to as well.

Why? Because it's such an inspiring story. I've seen it twice and would watch it again.

Richard, who was white, and Mildred, who was African American and Native American, were simple country people who happened to fall in love.

By staying together against all odds and daring to buck a racist system, the Lovings changed the world. The unlikely story of how these two unassuming heroes pulled that off should never be forgotten.

That's why I invited about 65 students from Science Leadership Academy to a free screening of Loving, in which actor Joel Edgerton plays Richard and actress Ruth Negga plays Mildred.

It's more fun to learn about history by watching a movie than plowing through a textbook. But as the youngsters filed into the Roxy Theater at 20th and Sansom streets, I immediately began fretting about how a generation raised on video games and fast-moving action movies would react to such a bittersweet film.

I shouldn't have worried. The youngsters settled in quickly as the plot slowly began unfolding. They gasped in horror when a scene showed how authorities burst into the Lovings' home as they slept and arrested them.

The Lovings wound up having to leave Virginia. They moved in with relatives in Washington D.C. for a time, but eventually sneaked back into Virginia, where their resolve to be together eventually prevailed, despite incredible odds against them.

The gravitas of what the Lovings accomplished wasn't lost on the students, who gasped and groaned along with the movie's twists. When the movie ended, they applauded. They not only enjoyed the movie, but they got a lot out of it as well.

"Love is love," Naima Debrest, 15, a sophomore, pointed out as she left the theater. "And that's the struggle with what we're going through today with people with gay marriage."

"I am very surprised," sophomore Afi Koffi, 15, added. "We see this, and we think it was a long time ago, but it really wasn't. It's pretty recent, and there are still issues involving things like this today. "

Sophomore Sashoya Dugan, 15, agreed. The Lovings "made a path for so many other people," she said. "Because of them, we are where we are today."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

On Twitter: @JeniceAmstrong

Blog: philly.com/HeyJen