Revolution #98, August 19, 2007


The Martinsville Seven

Revolution received this correspondence:

In light of the Jena Six, the group of black Louisiana students charged with second-degree murder after beating up a fellow white student, please allow me to share with your many readers another American story of injustice. It is a little known story about the Martinsville Seven, the largest mass execution for rape in U.S. history.

In 1949, in Martinsville, VA, seven black men were arrested for the rape of Ruby Stroud Floyd, a 32-year-old married white woman. Within 30 hours of this crime, all seven men had signed written confessions. Within 7 days, all seven were tried, convicted and sentenced to death by all-white, all-male juries. (Two were tried at the same time.) At the time of his arrest, the youngest was only 17 years old and the oldest, a 37-year-old WWII vet with a wife and five beautiful, young children, could have passed for white.

During appeals, Thurgood Marshall, later to become the first black Supreme Court judge and then head of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, helped represent them. (Three times the Supreme Court refused to hear their case.) Ossie Davis and Paul Robeson rallied Hollywood in their defense but to no avail. Communist Russia and China sent telegrams to the White House asking the U.S. to spare their lives but then President Truman, an alleged Klansman, refused to grant clemency. Around the world, they became known as the Martinsville Seven.

Just two years later in Richmond, VA, eight black men were executed, seven for the rape of one white woman. On Friday, February 2, 1951, at about 10:00 a.m., one man was taken to the electric chair. Ten minutes later, another died. 10 minutes after that, another died. It's been said that the chair was too hot to touch.

The following Monday, the remaining four black men were executed, or should I say boys because five of them were teenagers. Right before the youngest was executed, he said: "God knows I didn't touch that woman, and I'll see ya'll on the other side."

In the entire history of the United States, no white man has ever been executed for the rape of a black woman. During this time, no white man in Virginia had ever been executed for any rape of any woman. In 1977, over 25 years later, the Supreme Court ruled that rape could not be punishable by death. The Martinsville Seven case was instrumental in helping change the rape laws of this great nation. (The Seven case was the first time ever in a court of law where lawyers used statistics showing that black men were executed more than white men for similar crimes, especially rape.)

Every black person I have ever interviewed in Martinsville, young and old alike, said that the victim was having an affair with one of the Seven, the WWII vet, who could have passed for white. Elderly people who knew Rudy said she was a flirtatious lady, always "on the colored side of town," always "up in colored men's faces." Others said she was a devout Jehovah Witness, relentlessly passing out her religious pamphlets in Cherrytown, the colored side of town.

The true story of the Seven has never been told. There is one book published about the Seven and the author once told me that when he was researching his book, not one black person in Martinsville would be interviewed. For the record, I was born and raised in Martinsville, and three of the Seven executed were Hairstons.

If this is news to you, please share this American history with your readers and if not your readers, your friends and colleagues. Thanks for listening and KEEP HOPE ALIVE!

Pamela A. Hairston

Information Research Specialist and freelance writer

Washington, DC

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