70 years later Governor Grants Posthumous Pardons for ‘Martinsville Seven’

This doesn’t fully right this wrong but it’s a decent step towards bending that arc of Justice in the right direction. Also history is a wonderful teacher.


“We all deserve a criminal justice system that is fair, equal, and gets it right—no matter who you are or what you look like. I’m grateful to the advocates and families of the Martinsville Seven for their dedication and perseverance. While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam

On August 31, 2021 the Virginia Governor announced that his office has posthumously pardoned:

  • Frank Hairston Jr. (18),

  • Booker T. Millner (19),

  • Francis DeSales Grayson (37),

  • Howard Lee Hairston (18),

  • James Luther Hairston (20),

  • Joe Henry Hampton (19),

  • and John Clabon Taylor (21)

all seven African American men from Martinsville, VA and they later became to be known as the Martinsville Seven. These men were executed in 1951 for purportedly sexually assaulting a white woman. Some of the surviving family members of the wrongfully executed Martinsville Seven attended the signing ceremony



According to the data collected by the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia’s bloodstained history, which was deeply tied to institutional and systemic racism. The data and facts support the previous assertion..

Virginia executed 73 Black men—but not a single white person—for nonhomicide crimes (rape, attempted rape, or robbery) between 1900 and 1969. Of those defendants executed for murder during that period, 185 were Black and 46 were white.

Virginia FINALLY abolishes the Death Penalty


On March 24, 2021 Governor Northam signed into law which effectively abolished the death penalty in the Commonwealth. Second only to Texas, Virginia executed a lot of innocent men —particularly from 1903 to 1951.

In the March 2021 Press Release - the Governor’s Office cited the following finding of facts;

Virginia has executed over 1,300 people in its history, more than any other state. Images of the now demolished Virginia State Penitentiary in downtown Richmond, where executions took place for nearly 200 years, are available here and below, courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

Studies have shown that a defendant is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is White, than if the victim is Black. In the twentieth century, 296 of the 377 defendants that Virginia executed were Black. Of the 113 individuals who have been executed in Virginia since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 52 were Black.

Which prohibited the use of capital punishment for any violation of Virginia law. The sad reality is Virginia executed more people than any other state in all of the United States. —furthermore recent studies have shown that a defendant is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is white than if the victim is Black. This is what you would call a disproportionate impact and sadly affirms Virginia’s reckoning with the blood of many innocent African American men.

Notwithstanding the language in the Pardon is just extraordinary.

For Example:

WHEREAS, race played an undeniable role during the identification, investigation, conviction, and the sentencing of Francis DeSales Grayson and the six other men; and

WHEREAS, the United States Constitution states in Amendment VI, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed;” and

WHEREAS, Francis DeSales Grayson was found guilty by an all-white male jury and therefore denied judgement by an impartial jury of his peers; and

WHEREAS, following the executions of the Martinsville Seven, there have been a number of cases heard before the United States Supreme Court, including Furman v. Georgia (1972), Coker v. Georgia (1977), and Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), that bring into question the sentence of capital punishment for crimes such as that of rape;

…Virginia played an irrefutable role in the political, economic, and social disenfranchisement of Black Americans…

WHEREAS it appears that Francis DeSales Grayson, is a fit subject for clemency having been prejudicially and egregiously sentenced to death for the crime of rape; and

WHEREAS, the Commonwealth of Virginia played an irrefutable role in the political, economic, and social disenfranchisement of Black Americans, and helped shape, actively enforce, and uphold the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws which were formed to further systematically oppress Black Americans and maintain the status quo of the time;

You can read the full text of the pardon here -the August 31, 2021 Press Release can be read in its entirety here - you can also read more about the Martinsville Seven, here

Governor Northam’s pardons recognize the unjust, racially-biased sentences these men received, as well as the disturbing lack of due process in their trials and convictions. All members of the Martinsville Seven were convicted and sentenced to death within eight days, and .. Some of the defendants were impaired at the time of arrest or unable to read the confessions they signed, and none had attorneys present during their interrogation. Governor Northam made the announcement in a Richmond meeting with descendants of the Martinsville Seven.



In 1853 Theodore Parker 1 said:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.

I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.


Decades later Dr Martin Luther King 2said:

“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

And on August 31, 2021 that arc bent just a little bit more towards justice…

1

Ten Sermons of Religion by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience, Start Page 66, Quote Page 84-85,  https://archive.org/details/tensermonsrelig01parkgoog

2

On February 8, The Gospel Messenger, Out of the Long Night by Martin Luther King, Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Official Organ of the Church of the Brethren

https://archive.org/details/gospelmessengerv107mors