By Brandon Martin
As the 70th anniversary of the execution of the Martinsville Seven approaches, family members and advocates continue to request that Gov. Ralph Northam grant a posthumous pardon to the those believed to have been wrongly slain in 1951.
The men ━ Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner, and John Clabon Taylor ━ were convicted and executed for allegedly raping a white woman, Ruby Stroud Floyd, on Jan. 8, 1949 in Martinsville.
While allegations of improper police procedures and pleas for leniency from concerned citizens were numerous, the Commonwealth proceeded with executing four of the men on Feb. 2, 1951. The remaining three men were executed on Feb. 5.
It marked the largest mass execution for rape in U.S. history. It was also a penalty the Commonwealth selectively reserved for African American men.
“It was clearly a denial of due process,” said Rudolph McCollum, Millner’s nephew, and Grayson’s great-nephew. “The court not recognizing this type of trial had never in the history of the state been brought against anyone but black men. The penalty was more to send a message to the community, not just to those that were accused.”
McCollum, a Martinsville native and former mayor of Richmond, said his mother was only 14 when Millner was executed.
“Growing up it was kind of one of those hush-hush things,” he said. “Adults didn’t talk about it too much. I learned more about it through just talking to my cousins. Basically, we were told that he was killed for raping and he didn’t even rape anyone.”
McCollum said the incident was the basis for his interest in the law.
“It’s significantly part of what made me want to become an attorney because it showed me how even being innocent of things, you can be found guilty and be given the ultimate punishment,” he said. “I thought it was important to know what the law was so I could help people who may be disadvantaged by the law.”
It wasn’t until McCollum was in law school that he discovered the actual details of the case. Ever since, he and other family members of the Martinsville Seven, have been seeking a posthumous pardon.
“A pardon would be ideal, but an apology is needed,” McCollum said. “Something by the state, that the state action to deny these men their right to due process and subjected them to a consequence ━ meaning death ━ primarily because of their race, is not something that can be deemed justice. It’s quite the opposite. If we truly want to seek redemption as a society, my religion teaches me that before you can have redemption, you have to repent. That repentance is merely an admission that you’ve done something wrong. An apology would go towards that end. A pardon would be the ultimate recognition.”
The family members of the Martinsville Seven recently gained an ally in Liz Ryan, president, and chief executive officer of Youth First Initiative.
Ryan said that Virginia law doesn’t specifically provide for a posthumous pardon nor does it prohibit one.
“We looked at other cases around the country where there have been posthumous pardons granted,” she said. “We thought, let’s put in the request and particularly Gov. Northam has made a commitment towards racial justice, sort of addressing some of the mistakes of his youth. We thought it would be timely, particularly because it’s the 70th Anniversary of this case.”
While Northam’s office hasn’t responded directly, Ryan said spokesmen have hinted that he will seriously consider it with 2021 being his last year in office ━ a period historically popular for pardons.
She said she first heard of the Martinsville Seven while visiting the city during her trip south to see a civil rights exhibit at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.
“I wanted to make some stops along the way at some other places in Virginia and I had never been to Martinsville,” she said. “While looking for things to do, I also came across the case of the Martinsville Seven on the internet.”
Ryan said she had worked in the criminal and juvenile justice field for 30 years to that point and had never heard of the case. To learn more, she purchased “The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment,” by Eric W. Rise.
“What drew me to the case was as I read more and talked to people, I became outraged about the fact that this happened in Virginia,” Ryan said.
The book encouraged Ryan to contact local organizations to collect the primary trial documents such as transcripts, appeals documents, and letters to the governors.
Most surprising to Ryan was there “really was no information on it. There’s no historical marker, there’s nothing in the museums about it, there’s nothing in the courthouse about it. At the time, this case made headlines around the world.”
Given what she found in her research, Ryan said she believes the Martinsville Seven were failed by the justice system.
“From everything that I’ve read, I believe the men were innocent,” Ryan said. “I think the process did not allow for the truth to be heard. There were many, many issues with the process.”
For example, Ryan said “they were arrested right after the event occurred ━ within the first 24 or 48 hours. They were interrogated by law enforcement without the presence of attorneys which is very problematic. Their confessions were forced.”
Ryan said the men were also “convicted by the press,” and presumed guilty before the trials took place.
“That prejudiced the jury and the people against them,” she said. “That made it very difficult to have a fair trial.”
Ryan said the timeliness of the trials were also problematic given the nature of the accused crimes.
“The trials were rushed. They were one-day trials, back-to-back essentially,” she said. “The juries were all-white juries, they had appointed counsel, so I think all of those factors combined together made it difficult for the truth to be heard.”
Ryan said there were other mitigating factors working against the men as well.
“There were not only Jim Crow laws that prejudiced this case, in 1949-1950, we are talking about the McCarthy era,” she said. “The country was very opposed to anyone who had any ties with the Communists. One of the organizations that was involved in trying to highlight the case of the Martinsville Seven was called the Civil Rights Congress. They were very vocal. They held vigils. They held letter-writing campaigns.”
Due to the group’s association with communist organizations, Ryan said the governors were more prone to oppose intervening.
“Gov. Battle indicated later that he believed some of the men were innocent,” Ryan said. “He said he didn’t want to commute their sentences or grant clemency because he didn’t want to be seen as supporting a communist-leaning organization.”
McCollum also thinks the political landscape was a major hurdle in the trial.
“The people that were trying to become involved to create more racial equity were deemed to be of a communist persuasion,” he said. “There wasn’t such a thing as a liberal. If you had any sort of liberal leanings, you were labeled a communist. That didn’t help the situation either.”
According to McCollum, the executions were a tool to suppress progress towards racial equality.
“Racial intermingling wasn’t something that was done,” he said. “True integration didn’t happen until the late 60s for the schools. Other than that, there was a lot that the races kept apart. That was because of the societal norms. This (execution) was something that really sent that message home as to why people shouldn’t be interacting with other races.”
While McCollum said a posthumous pardon would be meaningful to himself and other family members, he believes it could have implications for the current state of racial relations at large.
“It would send to the larger society that the state, itself, recognized that it would not tolerate injustice,” he said. “Justice delayed is better than total justice denied.”
Those involved with the project say it isn’t a question of guilt or innocence but rather equality under the law.
“The punishment should fit the crime,” McCollum said. “We are not necessarily saying that everybody was squeaky clean, honest and innocent of everything. What we are saying is that anytime we over-punish people for their crime, that in itself is an injustice.”
Martinsville Seven Week will be held Feb. 1-5, with a vigil on the first day. To hear the family members, register at https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZctfuCrqTIqGdIIlpC7BML7s4s-DXfiNQJJ