We must start demanding more than apologies from politicians for the killing of innocent Black men

Aida Girmay is a sophomore at UM majoring in public health and political science and one of TMH’s newest contributing columnists. For her first story, the Silver Spring, Maryland native decided to write a piece about the recently-pardoned Martinsville Seven, who were wrongly imprisoned after being accused of raping a white woman.

Aida Girmay, a sophomore at UM majoring in public health, stands outside of the Shalala Student Center while on campus for the fall semester. Girmay first learned about the Martinsville Seven in middle school, years before Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced he would pardon them due to the lack of due process in their trials.
Aida Girmay, a sophomore at UM majoring in public health, stands outside of the Shalala Student Center while on campus for the fall semester. Girmay first learned about the Martinsville Seven in middle school, years before Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced he would pardon them due to the lack of due process in their trials. Photo credit: Aida Girmay

On Feb. 5, 1951, against the protests of anti-death penalty protestors and civil rights activists, the last three members of a group now know as the Martinsville Seven were executed after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a white woman.

On Aug. 31, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam pardoned Francis DeSales Grayson, 37, John Claybon Taylor, 21, James Luther Hairston, 20, Joe Henry Hampton, 19 and Booker T. Millner, 19 of the rape of 32-year-old Rudy Stroud Floyd, of which they were convicted in a trial marred by the 1950’s highly unjust and racist legal system.

The constitution grants all American citizens the right of due process. This ensures that in the case of a criminal trial, all citizens are entitled to fair representation under the law. This fairness, however, was absent during the Martinsville Seven trial. According to Northam, some of the men convicted were illiterate due to the lack of proper systems of education for Black people in the 1950s, leaving them unable to read the confessions they were signing. Some were visually or mentally impaired as well, making the trial discriminatory against both people of color and disabled people. All seven men were denied the right to have a lawyer present when signing their confessions, a violation of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a fair trial for all American citizens, including the right to an attorney. These factors led Northam, a democrat serving his first term in office, to finally acknowledge what has long been known.

“These men were tried without adequate due process,” Northam said, adding that the seven Black victims, “received a racially biased death sentence not similarly applied to white defendants.”

The pardon, however, does not take away the suffering the deaths of seven innocent men caused their families and friends.

“This has affected me all of my life,” said James Grayson, the son of Francis Grayson, on the day his father was pardoned.

Although some of the families of the Martinsville Seven have said they have been brought peace, this will never take away the pain that they felt. This incessant cycle of Black men being animalized and criminalized is one in a long line of injustices suffered by the Black community in America, for behind every statistic you see about the unjustifiable incarceration of Black men, there is another family destroyed by tragedy, another father, brother, son, cousin, best friend and mentor ripped away from their community.

Va. holds the record for executing the most men in the U.S. to date. Although the Martinsville Seven were pardoned, the fact that there were around forty Black men in the state incarcerated and executed for rape between 1908-1951 has forced many to question the legitimacy of such cases.

“The case of the Martinsville Seven is important in another way — the pardon is a formal apology and an acknowledgment that the lives of the people who were victims… their family members’ lives, and the lives of everyone in the Black community have value. Their lives matter. And the act of acknowledging this matters, too,” Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham said.

The acknowledgement is minimal. These victims, including those the public may not know of yet, deserve to be cleared in name, but it is not enough. The prison system in America continuously comes down hard on Black men for petty crimes, if crimes at all. How can figureheads for the government insist on pardoning men of the past, while allowing the system that damned them to continue existing?

Black people in this country are at a crossroads. After being segregated, marginalized, gentrified and bastardized, how could a simple apology bring joy? It will not. If policymakers continue to take shortcuts through no-action apologies as a way to improve their public opinion and bring in Black voters, minorities in the U.S. will continue to suffer. Unconstitutional incarceration will continue. Innocent people will continue to die and their families will be left to carry the weight of this country’s prejudice.

Grayson, Taylor, Hairston, Hampton, and Millner. These are just a few names. They are not all 45 of the black men executed via death penalty in Va. alone. They are not the 339 black men executed by the death penalty in the US since 1976. They are not the black men who make up 32% of jails despite making up only 13% of the U.S. population as of 2019. An apology without change is manipulation. It is up to the population as a whole to realize that an apology should not be the end, but the first of the steps taken to fix the mistakes of the past.