Gov. Ralph Northam’s posthumous pardons for seven young Black men in Martinsville who were executed in 1951 after being convicted of raping a white woman won’t undo the terrible wrongs that occurred during Virginia’s shameful Jim Crow era. But they are a stark reminder that government can never be blindly trusted, and that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Northam acknowledged that the pardons do not address the guilt or innocence of the “Martinsville Seven.” There was physical evidence that the rape victim, 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd, had been sexually assaulted, and two of the men admitted having consensual sex with her, but rumors that she was having an affair with one of the defendants were never brought up in court.
At this point, what really happened will probably never be known beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, the pardons do address what appears to be a complete lack of due process and the fact that at the time, rape was a capital crime in Virginia — but the death penalty was only imposed if the perpetrator were Black.
The executed men received a “racially-biased death sentence not similarly applied to white defendants,” Northam told a group of their descendants.
All seven were tried by all-white, all-male juries, which could not plausibly be considered “a jury of one’s peers” as required by the Constitution, and all were tried and executed within an eight-day period. None had their parents or attorneys present during interrogations by the police, and some were unable to read the resulting “confessions” that sealed their fate.
Even back in 1951, people outside Virginia knew that what was happening in Martinsville was wrong. Demonstrators marched in front of the White House, urging President Harry S. Truman to pardon the men. He declined to do so.
Four hundred protestors also demonstrated in Richmond, appealing to then Democratic Gov. John Battle to commute the death sentences. Battle also received letters from around the world asking for mercy for the seven, but he refused to stop the executions. Five years later, he was the Dixiecrat candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Their punishment did not fit the crime. They should not have been executed,” Northam said of the doomed men.
Virginia abolished the death penalty earlier this year, and in 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty for the rape of an adult women was excessive “in its severity and revocability,” so the chances of the same travesty happening again are negligible.
But admitting government wrongdoing is always right, even after 70 years, and the governor should be commended for doing so.