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Notes of the Month

Odell Waller

(July 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 6, July 1942, pp. 164–166.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.

Odell Waller is dead. His life was taken in an electric chair to which he was sentenced by a poll tax jury in the state of Virginia. By this act the symbol of our democracy was raised a little higher.

The case of the dead sharecropper became a nation-wide issue. For more than two years, chiefly through the efforts of the Workers Defense League, Waller was kept alive. Appeals to the higher courts were unavailing. The Supreme Court, now regarded as a New Deal judiciary, or as a “great liberal institution,” refused to consider the case on technical grounds, i.e., on the grounds Of an error by the trial attorney!

The case itself is shrouded in confusion. Odell Waller, a poor Negro sharecropper, admitted that he shot and killed his white planter-boss, Oscar Davis, in an argument over their respective shares of his tobacco crop. It was claimed by the defense that Waller interpreted a movement of Davis’ hand toward his hip pocket as reaching for a gun and that he shot first. It seems that the case was one of first degree murder. That, at least, was the position taken by the prosecution and the rulers of the state of Virginia.

And so, once again, a Negro was tried by a jury of “his peers,” this time consisting of ten white farmers, one white business man and one white carpenter, in a state where the Negro suffers inequality and the decades-old prejudice of the South. The verdict of the jury could have been foretold.

We have made a rough citation of the legal aspects of the case merely to introduce the subject because we do not believe that this case could or should have been decided on “legal” grounds. The case of Odell Waller was one of tremendous social import, for it again sharply posed the position of the Negro in American society and the reactionary forces which keep alive the powerful racial prejudice which exists and is artificially nurtured in this country.

The Waller case called attention to the condition of semi-peonage which befalls so large a section of the Negro people in the Southern and “border” states and which is also the lot of a large number of white farmers. The condition of servitude under which these people live is not far removed from the slavery of the pre-Civil War days. Negroes and poor whites work land for their bosses and obtain a share of the products of their long and arduous toil. More often than not, the landlord decides the cropper’s share and cheats him in a hundred different ways. The glutted landlords idly await the fruits of the toil of the sharecropper. The fact that there are white sharecroppers does not make this condition of semi-peonage any more palatable. It merely goes to show that the landlords and profiteers are not greatly concerned with how and from whom they profit.

The Plight of the Sharecropper

Sharecroppers are the lowest paid of American toilers. They have few rights and little or no means of fighting for democratic, economic and social rights. Their lives are completely brutalized by the extreme poverty under which they live. The landlord, the vigilante and the gun rule the cropper areas. The Negro, especially, must fight, in the most literal sense, for his very existence. Behind the landlords stand the petty officials, the armed deputies, the legal powers and the governing officials. Thus, all the cards are stacked against the poorest of those who work the land in order to live.

If in the Waller case it is true that Davis himself was a tenant farmer who employed this poor sharecropper, it does not help the case of the Southern Bourbons. It only emphasizes the demoralizing and degenerating effects of the sharecropping system. In this case, one tenant farmer parcels out the land he works on to another sharecropper and a fight ensues over their collective meager rations. Thus, the vicious system of exploitation wends its way.

Governor Colgate W. Darden, Jr., was within his power to change the verdict of the jury. But after several reprieves and following what he called a complete examination of the facts of the trial, Darden refused to act in any way which might have saved Waller’s life. It was reported that the President had sent a personal message to the governor – but the content of the message is unknown. The announcement, however, is intended to show that Roosevelt and his Administration cannot be held responsible for the action of a governor acting under the doctrine of states’ rights.

There are however, some interesting sidelights to the case and these concern the efforts of the Workers Defense League and a committee of leading Negroes to see the President and other Administration officials for the purpose of obtaining their intervention in the case. The President could not be seen! Vice-President Wallace, the ideological champion of New Dealism and the advocate of a “new world for the common man,” the genuine believer in the “Four Freedoms,” fled from the committee in a highly agitated and embarrassed manner. Eleanor Roosevelt, who sought thrice to get the President’s ear, finally acknowledged defeat.

What powers lay behind this White House drama? It is obvious that the Southern bloc had warned Roosevelt to keep hands off the case of Odell Waller! And the White House conceded to the demand! The reasons are plain to see. Roosevelt governs on the basis of a political fusion with the most reactionary, semi-fascist elements in the country. The prosecution of the war and the success of the war economy, the retention of some of the achievements of the New Deal (those not already violated and abolished by congressional actions) rest, in a large measure, upon support of these elements. Rather than risk a head-on collision with these forces, the Administration plays the game. If only for this reason, it is not decisively important how the President personally feels about the Negro question. For the same reason, it is not too significant that the New Dealers, and a large part of the Administration, would like to overcome Jim Crow and general discrimination, not only against the Negro, but against all other racial and national minorities, in industry, in the Army and Navy, and in all other aspects of American social and political life. They are part of an economic and political system which gives rise to the existence of these conditions, and since they live and act within the orbit of this system, since their own political existence, power and actions are the result of the worst kind of compromise between bourgeois reformism and reaction, one cannot expect them to act in any way which violates their genesis – small matters notwithstanding.

Southern Rulers Dominant

The adamant position taken by the Southern bloc is worth investigating. Aside from the fact that they are, as a group, the most backward, ignorant and feudal-minded reactionaries in the country, the fundamental explanation for their conduct lies in the field of economics. By this remark we do not overlook the environmental conditioning of decades, the effects of the system of slavery, ended only seventy-five years ago. We are not unaware of how the post-Civil War generations have been educated in the Southern schools or by their immediate family ties, of how the anti-Negro and general race, national and religious prejudices have become an integral segment of the cultural growth in the Southern states. These prejudices, spread beyond the borders of the South to the entire country, are by and large maintained, artificially and otherwise, by the practices of the entire ruling economic class, particularly in the South.

The power of the Southern landlords, industrialists, bankers and professionals, rests upon low wages, intense exploitation, poor housing, sub-standard foods, and these are maintained by keeping the poor, the worker, the small farmer, the tenant and sharecropper, white and black, in a state of subjection in which race prejudice is the strongest single factor of division. Anything which threatens the economic, social and political rule of the Southern Bourbons is met with an automatic unity on their part that is well-nigh unshakable in the absence of a united opposition. But their greatest strength lies in the halls of Congress, where every progressive measure is met with their censorship or rejection. Their political power, based upon the existing electoral system, is far in excess of their real strength in the country.

Only one party rules in the South – the Democratic Party. Its representatives have a veritable life tenure in Congress and in the Senate. In the legislative halls, where seniority rights prevail, the Southerners are chairmen of almost all of the leading committees. They can make or break legislation. And they do! That is why no lynching bill and no anti-poll-tax bill have as yet been put to a vote. But that is also the reason why the most reactionary legislation can pass in the congressional halls,


The Waller case is important because it has brought to a head a situation which nails to a cross the infamy of the Southern statesmen. But not only the Southerners. Where were the Northern statesmen, the Western statesmen, the great Administration leaders? Where were the propagandists of the “people’s war,” the believers in the “common man,” the believers in the “Four Freedoms”? All of them acknowledged defeat! They confessed their impotency in the face of rabid reaction. More than that, they confessed their utter bankruptcy!

That is why A. Philip Randolph said, after vainly trying to get an audience with Roosevelt: “The President and the government have failed us.”

But listen for a moment to those responsible for the execution of Waller. Listen to the august governor o£ the state of Virginia fulminating against those who sought to save Waller’s life: “I regard such propaganda campaigns as extremely detrimental to the public interests. The only possible effect is to sow racial discord at a critical time when every loyal citizen should strive to promote unity.”

That is the way of these gentlemen. To come to the defense of a poor sharecropper, to oppose discrimination and Jim Crow is to “sow racial discord.” No, it is not those who enforce this barbaric system in the South who sow racial discord, it is those who fight against it! Adding insult to injury, the governor wraps himself in the flag and behind the war by denouncing the objectors because this is “a critical time when every loyal citizen should strive to promote unity!”

The Norfolk, Va., Ledger-Dispatch, in an editorial of July 1st, ecstatically says: “To Governor Darden for having seen clearly and acted fearlessly – all honor!”

The Danville, Va., Bee accused those who sought clemency for Waller of having constituted “another form of mob law,” and defends the orderly processes of law! The movement in defense of Waller was characterized by this same newspaper as a “sociological movement” – perish the thought!

In the midst of the agitation around the Waller case, the ignorant Representative Rankin of Mississippi kept up a running barrage against those who “desire to defile the purity of the white race,” especially in the South (!), by accepting unmarked containers of Negro blood for the armed forces. He too, did it in the name of avoiding racial discord! He did it in the name of Americanism and in the interest of the war against Hitler!

If one examines the professions and business of these gentlemen who compose the Southern, ruling class, he will find that well-defined economic interests dominate their actions. In the South you find capitalism in the raw. Class relations are so fixed that there is no requirement yet for the “niceties” of capitalist rule in the North. But this condition is changing there with the growing might of labor and it is this which strikes fear in the hearts of the Bourbons – fear lest their barbarous economic rule will be threatened! That is why it was necessary for them to take Waller’s life – to demonstrate their power, their readiness to fight any encroachment upon their “rights.” The execution of Waller was a demonstration by the Southern ruling class.

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