Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Martinsville Seven

The Protests Grow

All during the summer of 1950 and into the fall, the political movement to save the Martinsville Seven grew. Across the nation, the NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) tried to rally support for the defendants. In some cases, they succeeded; in others, they failed. A New York City newspaper called The Daily Worker, the voice of the American Communist Party, took up the cause of the Seven and was vociferous in its complaint that the defendants had been framed. Their coverage of the story grew more radical as time went on and was typified by this sample, which appeared on May 31, 1950, on the front page.

The Daily Worker newspaper
The Daily Worker newspaper

"Southern justice has created a ruthless assembly line legal machine here that has so far ground out death sentences for seven Negro men," the story began. "If they die, it will be legal lynching, organized on a cold, calculating "legal" basis to satisfy the lynch appetite aroused among white townspeople." The Worker also published a series of articles which outlined an alleged conspiracy by the Martinsville business community to send the defendants to their deaths. "The Martinsville verdicts reveal that Negroes are still considered slaves," reporter Mel Fiske wrote. "Martinsville court authorities had no qualms about tearing up the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation and any other laws in their desperate drive to send the seven to death."

Supporters for the Seven managed to obtain several stays of execution, which afforded more time for the defense team. The NAACP attorneys, who had joined in the effort to save the defendants, worked tirelessly with Virginia authorities. "The seven innocent victims of Virginia-style jim crow justice had received two stays of execution as a result of nation-wide and international protests," reported The Worker. "Last November their executions, set for the 17th and the 20th of that month, were stayed pending action by the high court."

Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman

In Washington D.C., a large contingent of writers, artists and professionals called upon President Harry Truman to intervene in the spirit of compassion. The effort was led by the New York Council of Arts which presented a petition to Truman asking for the lives of the seven defendants: "Our vigil at the White House is being conducted to remind all who see it or hear of it that true justice, unsullied by prejudice or bigotry, is the only hope of life for these seven men." Representatives of trade unions from New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond and Louisiana also joined in the demonstration.

Justice Fred M. Vinson
Justice Fred M. Vinson

In the meantime, as the execution date approached, protests continued in cities across the nation. "An estimated 100 persons are keeping an around the clock deathwatch outside the President's mansion in protest of the scheduled execution of the Martinsville Seven," reported New York's Amsterdam News. A desperate appeal was made to Virginia Governor John S. Battle, who had previously refused to intervene in the case. Defense attorneys for the Seven called upon Battle to commute the sentences to life in prison. On February 1, the governor declined. He said that the protestations of certain groups had "no semblance of truth and [was] designed for no other purpose than to attempt to foment ill feeling between the races and to mislead those who have no knowledge of the true facts of these cases." The very next day, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Fred M. Vinson, denied a stay of execution. It was the third and final time the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

It was time for justice.

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