Martinsville Seven (1949-1951)

Martinsville Seven, 1949
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The Martinsville Seven were a group of young black men executed in 1951 after being convicted of raping a white woman.  Their trials and the electrocutions became a cause célèbre similar to the Scottsboro Case of the 1930s.

On the evening of January 8, 1949, Ruby Stroud Floyd accused 13 black men of raping her while she passed through a poor African American neighborhood in Martinsville, Virginia.  The police first arrested Frank Hairston, Jr. and Booker T. Millner, and soon picked up James Luther Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, John Clabon Taylor, Francis DeSales Grayson, then James Henry Hampton as additional suspects.  The young men with spotty employment records but no real criminal history soon became known as the Martinsville Seven.  Most of the men were between 18 and 20 years old and worked as laborers in small-scale furniture factories and warehouses.  At age 37, World War II veteran Francis DeSales Grayson was the oldest of the defendants.

Floyd identified Grayson and Hampton as her rapists but struggled to identify the others because the attack happened at night.  After being questioned by local police officers, the defendants initially confessed to committing or witnessing the crime.  By the spring of 1949, all seven men were charged with rape.

Judge Kennon C. Whittle of the Martinsville Circuit Court granted requests to hold individual trials. The prosecution vetoed all potential black jurors so that all-white and all-male juries heard the cases.

During the eleven-day trials, juries heard testimonies from both sides, including medical evidence of Floyd’s physical injuries and accounts from black witnesses whom Floyd appealed to for help after the assault.  Defense lawyers argued that Floyd had consented to sexual intercourse by failing to forcibly resist the men and that the initial confessions were forced by the local sheriff.  All six juries convicted the young men of rape and recommended the death penalty.

NAACP officials focused national attention to the case, hoping to delay or overturn the death penalty judgment.  NAACP lawyers argued on appeal that Virginia’s legal code was hardly race-neutral since whites convicted of rape “seldom if ever” received the death penalty.

Virginia’s court system repeatedly rejected the NAACP’s arguments and the US Supreme Court rejected the case twice without review.  By early 1951, legal strategies to save the Martinsville Seven were exhausted and the NAACP, joined by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), turned towards a public relations campaign aimed at commuting the men’s death sentences.  While the NAACP focused on racial equality as part of Cold War American democratic visions, CRC mobilized left-based organizations and newspapers from around the world to pressure state and national officials to intervene.  Despite the letter-writing campaigns, editorials, and local vigils, newly-installed Virginia Governor John S. Battle refused clemency.  Four of the Martinsville Seven were electrocuted on February 2, 1951. The remaining three were electrocuted on February 5.