Anne Holsinger 0:01

Hello, and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In this episode, I’m speaking with Liz Ryan and Rudolph McCollum, two of the people involved in the efforts to obtain a posthumous pardon for the ‘Martinsville Seven’. The Martinsville Seven were a group of seven Black men executed in Virginia in 1951 for the rape of a white woman. The men were coerced into confessing—without attorneys present—then were sentenced to death by all white, all male juries in trials that lasted less than a single day. No white person has ever been executed in Virginia for the crime of rape. As the 70th anniversary of the executions approaches, the case has received renewed attention and a group of advocates are asking Governor Ralph Northam to pardon the Martinsville Seven. Our guests today are two of those advocates. Rudolph McCollum is the nephew of Booker T. Millner, one of the seven men executed. He’s also a former mayor of Richmond, Virginia, serving in that office from 2001 to 2005, and a former member of the Virginia Parole Board. Liz Ryan is President and CEO of the Youth First Initiative, a national campaign to end youth incarceration and invest in youth in their communities, and an adjunct instructor at American University. Thanks for joining us.

Rudolph McCollum 1:18

Glad to be here.

Liz Ryan 1:19

Thank you.

Anne Holsinger 1:20

From 1900 until the US Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty in 1977 for crimes in which no one was killed, Virginia executed seventy-three 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. Against that backdrop, could you tell our listeners who the ‘Martinsville Seven’ were, what happened to them, and why you think their case is an important part of Virginia history?

Liz Ryan 1:51

The Martinsville Seven were seven young men who were arrested, charged, detained, put on trial, and convicted for the rape, and alleged rape, of a white woman in 1949. Their cases were rushed through the justice system in back-to-back trials, one day trials with all white juries. There were several years of appeals that the NAACP led that ultimately resulted in their executions seventy years ago, coming up in several weeks here. And I believe that this was a rush to judgment that the justice system did not give them the due process that they were afforded. And that Virginia’s law—that essentially only allowed for Black men to be executed for rape—was racially disparate and should never have happened.

And we’re looking at this case now because it’s seventy years on and there’s been a lot of discussion about this case over the past seventy years. What happened in this case… what we know, what we don’t know. And one thing that we do know is that, this was a miscarriage of justice. That these men were never afforded due process. And it’s very likely that there was a rush to judgment in terms of arresting them, there was a lot of issues with with the process. So for example, they were interrogated without the presence of attorneys, their families believe that their confessions were forced. Likely many of them were false confessions because they were told to confess to this or meet the mob outside.

At that time, they were appointed attorneys. It’s not clear how hard these attorneys worked to save these men. And then when it came time to appeal the case, we had top-line attorneys from the NAACP, who led those efforts. But the climate was such that the governors did not want to appear to be appeasing any kind of left-leaning groups that may have had communist affiliations. And one of the groups that was advocating on their behalf, Civil Rights Congress, had communist leanings. And if you look back at 1949, 1950, 1951, I mean, that was the McCarthy era. That was the era of the Cold War, where the United States was, you know, there was a huge Red Scare.

And so I believe that part of the reason why the governors didn’t want to backtrack on these cases was because they didn’t want to appear to be appeasing Communists. And so there are many, many aspects of the case to look at and to talk through but that’s what happened. And I believe that the case needs to be looked at again, and that the governor should posthumously pardon these men and apologize to their families for seventy years of pain and grief over this case.

Anne Holsinger 5:06

Mr. McCollum, you are a family member of one of the Martinsville Seven. How did you learn about this case, and how was it discussed in your family?

Rudolph McCollum 5:13

Well, it’s interesting that you should ask because I only recently found out that I was related not only to one, but two. Booker T. Millner was my mother’s brother. And all my life, he has been the only person that I knew about, that I was related to in Martinsville Seven. It wasn’t anything that I learned about, in discussing it with the adults in my family. I was born in ‘55. So it wasn’t until early ’60s that, you know, this was something that came to my attention. But as I said, it didn’t come to my attention as a result of any of the adults in my family talking about it. This was something that was pretty much kept quiet in the family. And it was really more about the younger people in the family who talked about it. And then I learned about it… what had happened in our family.

And it wasn’t until I actually gone through college, and went to law school that I actually got more specific details of what occurred because I had the opportunity, then to be able to actually review, you know, the trial transcripts and whatnot, and the case histories that had been written. And that only piqued my interest more, which then I went back, and then had a chance to talk to some of the members of my family. And as I said only recently, because it wasn’t talked about that much, that I learned that Mr. Grayson, who was the eldest of the persons was married to my aunt! So I have an uncle and a great uncle, actually, that were part of the Martinsville Seven. And it’s just that kind of history, that I was brought up with it, or lack of history that I was brought up with, that we talked about in the family.

Anne Holsinger 7:33

How did learning about the case affect you, and in particular, your perceptions of the legal system?

Rudolph McCollum 7:38

Oh, man. Well, that’s, that’s fascinating, because, again, remember, I’m growing up in the 60s. And there’s a lot of social upheaval that’s occurring in the greater society—the Civil Rights movement is really spawning, and reaching its peak. Of course, then, as I said, go back and learn about what occurred to my family—this gross injustice which occurred. What it really did, fortunately, for me, it had more of a—believe it or not—I would say a positive impact, in the sense that basically, I knew about then the injustice of society. And it, for me, created a desire to create a more just society, and to participate, and to become a part of a more just society. And to be able to become more of an advocate, and to pursue, you know, higher education, and to become an attorney, so that I could be able to have more of an impact on the kinds of things that were happening to people around me.

And thus here I am. I mean, I was able to attend law school. Not only practice law, but had a great desire to be able to make change in the public sphere. So I got involved in my community and became an elected official to be able to affect change in that way. And also continuing, even after I finished my elected position, was appointed by the Governor, who I worked with, to become a member of the Virginia Parole Board, which had an opportunity then to also review some of the experiences that people had. Some of which may have involved some questionable state action, and to determine if in fact, they could have a second chance in life.

Anne Holsinger 9:51

Yeah, I would love to hear more about how your awareness of this injustice in your own family history affected your perception of the kind of issues that you were called on to address in your role as mayor, and then in your role on the Virginia Parole Board as well.

Rudolph McCollum 10:06

Not so much, I guess, a direct effect, but more of a desire to have real concern and interest in ensuring that we could somehow address the inequities that existed in society to create a fairer system, so that a more even playing field could be available for persons who were just trying to make their way through life. And just whatever role that the government could play in that would be played is how I pretty much addressed it as a City Council person, and Mayor, to advocate for issues—social issues—that were taking into consideration that everybody didn’t have equal opportunity, and to try to provide more opportunities for those that had been denied parole decisions. As I said earlier, just to determine again, what types of legal inequities may have existed in some people’s cases. And to recognize that a second chance, based on the fact that people didn’t have a fair and equitable first chance is something that was really important in the lives of other people. And not just to take the position of just, you know, locking people up in throwing away the key.

Anne Holsinger 11:41

So this case has obviously had a personal impact on you. But trials and executions like this, much like public lynchings, in a very real sense, target the whole Black community. To what extent do you think this case had a long term impact, whether it was symbolic or practical impact, on the Martinsville area and on Virginia’s Black community at large?

Rudolph McCollum 12:03

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. Again, remember, we’re talking about 40s, 50s and beyond. There was a time, particularly in the South, when Jim Crow’s head had been raised and was very powerful to ensure that the status quo was maintained, and that Black people were “kept in their place.” And that any time anything occurred, which threatened the status quo, it was going to be met heavy handedly, in order to ensure that people got that message. And as we know, particularly here of late, those messages were sent in many different ways. Be they something as simple as putting up statues to various persons who were enemies of the state, to maintaining people in various geographic areas, to keep people limited in their employment opportunities.

And also, even in the justice system—or, as we in the Black community felt, was more the injustice system. And it did a great job. I mean, as we look even up to today, just the way that people view the police. Many people clearly see the police as someone who works for them, who protects them, and serves for them. Others feel that the police are merely there to keep them down, and to limit their actions. And it is just part of a whole society system that was put in place to limit people. And 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.

Anne Holsinger 14:40

It’s interesting that you bring up you know these perceptions about the police and the justice system, because these efforts to obtain a posthumous pardon are coming in the wake of a major national awakening on racial justice. What impact do you hope that a posthumous pardon will have, and how does it fit into that bigger national conversation?

Rudolph McCollum 14:59

First and foremost, you know, you’ve got the immediate impact that it has on those that were more directly affected. And then you’ve got an impact I think, from a societal standpoint. Speaking first, from a more personal approach… not just me, but my grandmother, Booker T.’s mother, Booker T. Millner’s mother had eight kids. And those kids had kids. So in just our immediate family, many of us are still alive today and spread across this country. And we have to live with what happened every day. And I think this would go, and we knew it was wrong, the way that they were treated. This would send, I think a message to us, that will give us some sense of relief. Obviously, you know, we can’t change what happened, but we can change the way that it was dealt with, and the approach that the state takes to it.

And as it relates to the larger society, I think this fits hand in glove with the movement that has taken place today, in the recognition that people need to be viewed differently. It’s critical, I think, to the importance of the need for there to be a discussion about race in America. My religion teaches me that there is no redemption without repentance. 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—first of all 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.

And I think this just serves as a specific example of how long we can go from here all the way to George Floyd and others who have been mistreated by the state. Because they said this is this is—we’re not talking about situations where there were mob lynchings, they’re one thing. These are state actions that took place, within “legal confines.” But we knew that the people were not given the process that they were due. It was truly a miscarriage of justice, which took place. And so I’m hoping that the two can coalesce and be able to be seen as examples of the readiness for society to recognize that wrongs have occurred. To be able to speak to those persons in a way of it being an apology for what happened. And then, to allow us collectively to be able to move forward as a society.

Anne Holsinger 18:22

So for the next part of our conversation, I’d like to bring in our other guest as well. Ms. Ryan, how did you come to be involved in the efforts for a posthumous pardon for the Martinsville Seven, and what is your role in the campaign?

Liz Ryan 18:33

I was born in Virginia and lived there off and on for the last twenty years, and was visiting Danville, Virginia to see their new civil rights exhibit. And that’s where I learned… I wanted to stop in a nearby town, and that’s when I learned about the Martinsville Seven. And I’d never heard of the case before. And there’s a book out there by a professor named Eric Rise and I ordered the book and read the book. And that, that wasn’t—that gave me some background, but I decided I wanted to see for myself. So I asked for the court transcripts and asked for the files from the governor’s office for Governor Battle and Governor Tuck. And so I’ve done a lot of research, pulling together all of the primary source documents from this case. And it was really appalling to me to learn about this case. I was ashamed that I didn’t know about it. I visited Martinsville—there’s no marker anywhere about it. When you go to the courtroom, there is a beautiful courtroom. It’s been refinished and refurbished. You’d never know that this case occurred in that courtroom. And so I felt that it was important that this case be highlighted and that people know about it. And I reached out to the families of the Martinsville Seven and I want to read their names because I feel like it’s very important to know who they were Francis DeSales Grayson, Booker T. Millner, Joe Henry Hampton, Howard Lee Hairston, Frank Hairston Jr., John Clabon Taylor, and James Luther Hairston.

And these seven men that there’s no information about them anywhere in Martinsville. So I felt that it was important to reach out to the families. So I’ve reached out to the families, to Mr. McCollum. And also to Pam Hairston and to James Grayson, who was Francis DeSales Grayson’s son, and two other family members to connect with them. I know that they’ve been asking for decades for some redress in this case, and so I felt that it was important to join with them and support their efforts to ask for a posthumous pardon. There’s a similar case in Florida called the ‘Groveland Four’. And in that case, the governor did provide a posthumous pardon. And while Virginia law doesn’t specifically provide for a posthumous pardon, my understanding from constitutional scholars is that it doesn’t prohibit it, and that the governor has the authority to do that. And as Mr. McCollum said, it can’t bring the men back, it can’t redress all the grievances over the last seventy years but it’s one step. It’s one acknowledgement of a wrong and it’s a very important acknowledgement.

Anne Holsinger 21:18

Absolutely. One thing that you mentioned is that there is this legal question about whether the governor has the power to issue a posthumous pardon. But the legislature could take up a bill to explicitly grant him that pardon power, for this and future cases. As we’re recording this, the Virginia legislature just began their 2021 session. Do you think that such legislation will pass, and why do you think it should be a priority?

Liz Ryan 21:43

I mean, I think that it would be very important. I—look, I think that the Governor should exercise his authority in this case to grant a posthumous pardon. And I think especially the fact that Governor Northam indicated that he himself wants to take up the issue of racial justice and to take steps to redress some of the wrongs, or at least acknowledge them as a first step, and bring truth to cases like this. And so I believe that Governor Northam needs to take that step. I think if the legislature took that step as well, that would be great. But it’s, it’s very surprising to me that here we are seventy years later, and the death penalty is still allowed in the state of Virginia. And so I’m heartened to hear that the governor has also indicated an interest in signing legislation to abolish the death penalty in Virginia. And I hope that the General Assembly is able to pass legislation this session. Both of those things would be the steps in the right direction.

Anne Holsinger 22:42

Yeah, that actually leads me into another topic I wanted to ask both of you about. The death penalty has declined a lot in Virginia in recent years—the Commonwealth hasn’t imposed a death sentence since 2011, there hasn’t been an execution since 2017. And this year, we’re seeing an effort toward abolition. You mentioned that the Governor has voiced his support. The Attorney General has also said that he would support an abolition bill, and twelve progressive prosecutors wrote a letter to the General Assembly calling for the abolition of capital punishment. So it seems that these efforts for the posthumous pardon and the efforts for death penalty abolition are gaining traction at the same time. When you started this campaign, did you think about the impact that it might have on death penalty abolition? And on the other side of that coin, how do you think that the movement toward abolition affects your chances of obtaining the pardons?

Liz Ryan 23:34

I mean, when I when I first got involved with this, I really wanted to learn more about the case and what happened. And just every step of the way, there were improper things happening you know like coerced confession, and the fact that the press essentially convicted these men even before there was the first hearing. You know, the—if you read the Martinsville Bulletin, the day and the days following the alleged incident, you’ll see that the press essentially convicts these men and says they’re guilty and says that the state has everything it needs and thank you very much. And that’s essentially what it says. It’s really appalling when you read that. So people in the in the community had the impression these men were guilty, even before the trial happened.

So they were presumed guilty from the start. Everything that I read, everything that I dug into, was just appalling to me. In fact, the Governor at the time, you know, I was mentioning before that he didn’t want to commute their sentence, he didn’t want to look at the case again, he didn’t want to do anything. And he also was the governor that led the effort in the South to resist Brown vs. Board of Education. So you can’t divorce this case from Jim Crow, like this was Jim Crow. This was a case of a governor in office who who did not want to integrate the schools and led an effort in the South with with all the other states. So you have to look at the people who were involved in this case at that time to see what was going on. So from my standpoint, I really wanted to support the families in calling for justice in this case. And if justice means posthumous pardon and an apology, then that that would be a step, step in the right direction. I think also, this is an example of how horrific the death penalty actually is.

I mean, the fact that they, you know, Virginia has murdered more people through the death penalty than any other state. And this was the largest mass execution ever in the country, seven people over two days. And it’s the finality, right? Like we will… if the death penalty hadn’t been imposed here, we might actually know what happened. These men may have been able to have more appeals and be able to actually show what happened, and then that, in fact, that they shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place. I think that and the fact that the death penalty in Virginia is really for this kind of crime was ever was really only imposed on Black men, just shows you what a travesty it is. So just as Mr. McCollum said, it’s just it’s—instead of a lynching, it’s a legal lynching, right? That’s what, that’s what the death penalty is in America: it’s 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. We should not allow this to happen. So it’s, I think it’s very fortuitous that advocates in the state have been pushing to abolish the death penalty for decades. And I support their efforts. I mean, this just happens to coincide. There wasn’t any pre-planning or foreplanning to make these things go together. But I do think that this case highlights an example of how how this is this kind of policy should be abolished and why.

Anne Holsinger 26:09

Mr. McCollum, would you like to add anything about the interaction of this effort with efforts toward abolition?

Rudolph McCollum 26:58

Well, I think Liz did a great job. And all I can say is, it’s—I just think that it was, as I was saying earlier, that a lot of things, situations, and experiences, not just here in Virginia, but nationally, the Black Lives Matter movement and what it’s done to involve people who previously would not have been aware of the kinds of things that take place in our justice system, have gotten them involved. And for a situation like this, to coalesce and both of these issues arrive on the Governor’s desk together, only 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.

Anne Holsinger 28:01

So I just have one more question. And it builds on the answer that you just gave Mr. McCollum. The way that the Martinsville Seven were treated, tells us a lot about how little Black lives mattered in the white Virginia power structure seventy years ago. What do you think these efforts tell us about how much Black lives matter now in Virginia?

Rudolph McCollum 28:21

Well, I could tell you. I think it creates quite a challenge, in that it will measure the extent to which, just within the last seventy years of society has evolved, how much may have actually changed? And if it hasn’t, at what point will we make sure that it does change? It creates an open opportunity for us to send a clear message that we, as I said earlier, recognize the wrongs that have occurred in society, and we are prepared now to make a change in the power structure—because without that, we really won’t be able to move forward, honestly and truly, towards the ideals that our country was formed under.

Anne Holsinger 29:23

Thank you so much for this discussion today. We’ve covered a lot about this important case and about how it fits into other changes that are happening in society right now. Before we let you go, is there anything else that either of you would like to add?

Rudolph McCollum 29:36

I just like to briefly thank Pam Hairston Chisholm, who wasn’t able to be here today. But who has been out there fighting this fight for many years. This fight—see because I have been able to move into the different areas of my life and address issues of injustice in other ways—but Pam has been out there fighting this fight of the Martinsville Seven for quite some time, and certainly helped to bring us to this point with regard to the Martinsville Seven. As a member of the Martinsville Seven family, I want to thank her for her work over the years. I’m considering myself at this point, you know, coming late to the fight, but I’m here full force. But thanks. Thanks, thanks to her. And also, of course, to Liz Ryan, who’ll speak for herself.

Liz Ryan 30:36

Thank you, Rudy, I echo your commendation of Pam Hairston’s efforts. I mean, she’s she’s been keeping the torch alive on this case for decades. And without her we wouldn’t be where we are now. I would just encourage all the listeners to get more information about this case and find out ways that they can get involved in urging the Governor to posthumously pardon the Martinsville Seven, by going to our website, which is And you can get background on the case on these individual men. You can see our petition to Governor and stay connected with us.

Anne Holsinger 31:17

Thank you both so much for joining us today. One more time, to learn more about the ‘Martinsville Seven’ and the campaign for posthumous pardons, you can visit That’s the numeral seven in the URL. To learn more about the death penalty, you can visit the DPIC website at And to make sure you never miss an episode of our podcast, you can subscribe to Discussions with DPIC on your podcast app of choice.