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Northam Pardons 7 Men Executed in 1951

Governor's Mansion
Jahd Khalil RadioIQ
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The Governor's Mansion in Richmond, VA. Photographed on August 31, 2021

Advocates had been pushing for pardons for the seven men, known as the “Martinsville 7,” for years.

Curtis Millner is the cousin of Booker T. Millner, who was 19 when he was executed.

“What we are really protesting.. was the punishment. The punishment did not meet the crime,” Millner, the vice president of the Martinsville 7 Initiative, said outside Capitol Square.

Northam’s pardon does not address the mens’ innocence, and the Martinsville 7 Initiative doesn’t make those claims. Millner, who was a child at the time of the crime, said that the harsh treatment of the men was meant to threaten the Black community in Martinsville and prevent mixing of Black and white residents.

The Associated Press reported that the execution was the largest mass execution for rape in the United States.

“It was somewhat effective because it is still left fear of the intimidation and a lot of people's minds,” he said.

Eyone Williams of the Free Minds Writing Workshop and Book Club said his organization also worked to push for a pardon.

“Some people worked on social media, some people worked on family communications. It was just a team effort. And we were just helping the people that had already been doing this work for decades,” he said. “It's constant work. It's almost like the work that you would do if you went to investigate for a law firm: you're not really doing the law work, but you're doing all the work that leads up to the law.”

In front of the Civil Rights Memorial on Capitol Square on a humid day, Northam addressed reporters, sometimes almost drowned out by cicadas.

“As we sit here in 2021 and think about what happened: the rapid trials, the trials by jurors that were all white men. It was wrong,” he said. “We're making progress, but still have a lot of work to do.”

“Systemic racism exists in our society. Black oppression exists. And I think a lot of people need to step back and realize that Black oppression and racism didn't stop with slavery.”

Delegate Marcia Price of Newport News said the pardons gives energy to other advocacy on racial justice.

“This was one of those opportunities to see wrongs get righted and it's really invigorating - it's powerful. But it's also inspiring for the work that is left for us to continue.”

Virginia outlawed the death penalty this year. The death penalty for rape ended in 1977. The governor’s office said that between 1908 and 1951, all 45 men executed for rape were Black.

“We're not saying everybody's innocent,” said Delegate Lamont Bagby of Henrico. “Those individuals that commit the crime should receive the same consequence. It should not only be 45 individuals that are executed all of one race. No pun intended, but that's a dead giveaway.”

Northam says he has pardoned over 600 people, more than the past nine governors combined.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.