Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Martinsville Seven

"A Beastly Crime!"

"They are dead now, the seven young Virginia Negroes," began the editorial on February 6, 1951 in the Daily Worker, "six of them barely out of their teens. They are dead because the 'white supremacy' system...needed new victims." Some political groups used The Martinsville Seven as a hammer to chip away at common enemies. The Communist Party used it to highlight the dilemma of American blacks, whom they saw as trapped in a system of injustice and discrimination in which they had no hopes of ever escaping. The Daily Worker's coverage on the Martinsville Seven was much more inflammatory and inaccurate than even the Southern press. "Seven Negroes have gone to their death," said one story in The Worker. "From their funeral pyre shot up a flame so high it was seen around the world. By its light, men everywhere read the inescapable lesson of the case...the lesson that a decaying system must murder Negroes to bolster a foul white supremacy upon which the system rests." This quote appeared in a news story titled "Marchers in Washington Vigil Vow Fight on Lynch System," not an op-ed piece.

Daily Worker newspaper
Daily Worker newspaper

Though the NAACP gathered their resources to support the seven, their efforts were always compromised by the obvious guilt of the defendants. And any assistance provided by the CRC may have actually hurt the efforts because of its distortion of the facts to the public. One newspaper told the story of the case under the headline, The Struggle for Seven Innocent Lives, an inflammatory title that had no bearing on the truth. Time magazine reported on February 12, 1951, that the Communist Party "was making propaganda out of the Martinsville Seven with suitable adjustment in the facts."

In denying one of the appeals of the Martinsville Seven, Judge Edward W. Hudgins of Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals said the death penalty "does not depend upon the race of the accused, but on the circumstances, aggravation and enormity of the crime...the law applies to all alike regardless of race or creed." In the rape of Mrs. Floyd, he said, there were no circumstances that indicated mercy. "Francis Grayson, a man of 37 years of age, saw the four men attacking Mrs. Floyd," Judge Hudgins wrote. "Instead of helping her, he left the scene, informed two others of what was taking place, the three went to the scene, and each in return, ravished Mrs. Floyd. One can hardly conceive of a more atrocious, a more beastly crime."

But New York's Amsterdam News felt differently. "When we consider the fact that in the entire history of the Old Dominion state, no white man has ever received capital punishment for rape," an editorial said on February 10, 1951, "then of necessity we must conclude that the death penalty for seven men for a singular crime was neither righteous, nor compassionate, nor wise."

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