In February 1951, Virginia executed seven Black men on charges they had raped a white woman two years earlier. The “Martinsville 7” — Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner, and John Clabon Taylor — were interrogated by police without the appointment of legal counsel and, under threats that they would be released to a lynch mob, confessed to involvement in the rape. After a succession of perfunctory trials before all-white, all-male juries, each was convicted and sentenced to death. Their sentences were carried out in the largest mass execution for rape in the history of the United States.

Seventy years later, family members of the men and legal advocates are spearheading an effort to posthumously pardon the men and redress a miscarriage of justice. In the January 21, 2021 episode of the Discussions With DPIC podcast, Rudolph McCollum and Liz Ryan join DPIC Managing Director Anne Holsinger for a conversation about those efforts. McCollum, a former mayor of Richmond, is the nephew of two of the men who were executed. Ryan is the president and CEO of the Youth First Initiative, which advocates for community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. They discuss what happened to the Martinsville 7, what a posthumous pardon could mean for the state and family members of the executed men, and how the case fits into the history of racial injustice in Virginia and current efforts to repeal the Commonwealth’s death penalty.

McCollum and Ryan are part of a group of advocates that have asked Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to posthumously pardon the Martinsville 7. “This was a miscarriage of justice,” Ryan said. “These men were never afforded due process. And it’s very likely that there was a rush to judgment” beginning at the time of arrest. Ryan points to deep problems with the investigative and legal process in the case. There were “a lot of issues,” she said. “They were interrogated without the presence of attorneys. Their families believe that their confessions were forced. [It’s] likely many of them were false confessions, because they were told to ‘confess to this’ or meet the mob outside.”

Holsinger placed the treatment of the men in historical context. She noted that “[f]rom 1900 until the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty in 1977 for crimes in which no one was killed, Virginia executed 73 Black men or boys on charges of rape, attempted rape, or robbery. In that same time period, it didn’t execute a single white person for those crimes. And it has never in the history of the Commonwealth executed any white man for raping a Black woman or girl.”

McCollum explained that southern states have historically used the criminal legal system to intimidate and control the Black community. “The purpose of lynchings, and I believe the purpose of even state action such as this, were to send a message to the Black community,” he said. “And it is just part of a whole society system that was put in place to limit people. This was just one more action to send a message that if you cross the line, we are going to ensure that you — not just you, who actually may have been involved in an illegal activity — but the entire community, recognizes that there are limits that we will set in place. They’re set in place for a purpose. If you cross them, there will be consequences.”

Ryan called the death penalty in America a “legal lynching.” “And the fact that it’s imposed most harshly on people of color — particularly Black men — just tells you that it’s that it’s unfair and should be abolished,” she said. “We should not allow this to happen.”

The posthumous pardon request comes at a time in which Northam has sponsored a death-penalty repeal bill in the state. McCollum said that this coalescence “speaks to me as some divine intervention, of how there can be some opportunity for these issues to be closed at the same time and make way for a new day.”

The letter to Governor Northam requesting the pardons states: “The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process ‘simply for being black,’ they were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for ‘simply for being black,’ and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black.’”

“My religion teaches me that there is no redemption without repentance,” McCollum told Holsinger. “And so, if we truly want to move forward as a society, we need to recognize that when wrongs are committed that they need to be corrected. But they can’t be corrected, unless there’s an admission … that there was a wrong which occurred. Once we do that, then we can truly be free as a society. We can move towards redemption from that and make way for a better world in which we can all live together.”

Ryan echoed McCollum’s sentiment. A posthumous pardon, she said, “can’t bring the men back. It can’t redress all the grievances over the last 70 years. But it’s one step. It’s one acknowledgement of a wrong. It’s a very important acknowledgement.”


Discussions with DPIC pod­cast, Injustice in Virginia: The Case of the Martinsville Seven’, Death Penalty Information Center, January 212021