The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment

By Sommerville, Diane Miller | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment


Sommerville, Diane Miller, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment. By ERIC W. RISE. Constitutionalism and Democracy. KERMIT HALL and DAVID O'BRIEN, Series Editors. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. x, 216 pp. $27.95. ON 8 January 1949, a thirty-two-year-old white woman, Ruby Stroud Floyd, embarked on an errand in a black neighborhood of Martinsville, Virginia. Upon her return home near dark, she maintained she had been sexually assaulted by a group of black men. The events that followed are the focus of a fascinating study by Eric W. Rise. Steeped in the stereotypes of southern justice for black rapists of white women, most of us could guess at what happened: a white woman "crying rape," black men wrongly accused, townspeople bent on lynching, and a legal system that overtly impeded due process. Readers may be surprised that this interracial rape case was characterized by none of these things. Although certain features of this case do compare with other notorious southern rape cases, the trial of the "Martinsville Seven," as they became known, is distinguished by several notable differences. Evidence, for instance, substantiated the prosecution's claim that forcible, nonconsensual sex indeed had taken place. Moreover, all the suspects acknowledged their presence at the crime scene as well as their complicity. In addition, rabid racist diatribes attacking the black suspects and defending the honor of white womanhood, mainstays of earlier alleged interracial rapes, were notably absent. Nor did a white mob storm the jail in an attempt to lynch those believed responsible for the attack. And the local newspaper was nothing short of exemplary in its self-conscious restraint from printing anything inflammatory or sensational. In short, an extraordinary degree of order and calm prevailed throughout the trial of the accused Martinsville rapists.

Also noteworthy were the procedural rights that were accorded the accused. Although all-white juries heard the trials, blacks had been present in all jury pools. Defense attorneys met with only compliance when they petitioned the court for separate trials for all defendants. Community stability, it was widely touted, not racially instigated retribution, was at the heart of the trial. Whites boasted that the Martinsville case stood out as a "bright light" of New South justice (p. 51).

The trial of the Martinsville Seven highlighted a far more subtle form of legal discrimination than most other racially charged convictions of southern black defendants.

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