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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Defense of Odell Waller

Murray describes her work with the Workers' Defense League towards the defense of Odell Waller, an African American sharecropper sentenced to death for the murder of his landlord during the early 1940s. In addition to describing the case in vivid detail, Murray identifies her experiences with the Waller case as especially pivotal in her decision to pursue a career in law. The case also brought her into contact with Leon Ransom of Howard University, who eventually arranged for her to attend the law school on full scholarship.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

O.K., now let's move on to the other incident, because this is one that I have read about so often in the newspapers and in the Workers Defense League files and it is one that I'm sure posterity will be interested in and that is the case of Odell Waller, the black sharecropper. Now, if you could briefly give us the facts of the case and then tell us how you participated in the Workers Defense League prior to your going to law school.
PAULI MURRAY:
Odell Waller was a sharecropper. Oscar Davis was a farmer who was his landlord. Oscar Davis, being not really a planter, but also himself a relatively small, grubby farmer. They had a dispute over a wheat crop. Apparently the division was supposed to be Odell and his mother worked the wheat crop and when the division would be made, one-fourth of every four bags, or however they did the bag, would go to Odell Waller and his family. In some ways, this was apparently not carried out and Odell, who had been away looking for work came back to have it out with his landlord. I think that his mother must have written him and said that they had put all the wheat into Mr. Davis's barn instead of giving them their one-quarter. So, Odell goes over to Davis to have it out. Unfortunately, I think that he takes a rifle along with him. I think that it was a rifle. In the argument, Odell's story is that Davis puts his hands in his pocket and Odell thinks that he is going to pull out a gun and so, he shoots first in what he believes to be self-defense. Davis is eventually taken to the hospital, seems to be all right, getting along all right, and then he dies of a collapsed lung. Odell has escaped to Ohio, in due course he is apprehended in Ohio and a Workers Defense League lawyer in Ohio unsuccessfully fights to keep him from being extradited to Virginia. This lawyer reports to the national board of the Workers Defense League, on which I am sitting that summer, and says, "We have this case which is going back to Virginia and we've lost the fight to keep him from being extradited. Will you follow up on the case?" All summer, we …and this is my first experience on the board …all summer we are wrestling with this case of this sharecropper who has been extradited and going back to Virginia. We somehow don't seem to really come to any decisive point of action, but it keeps being on the agenda. I'm giving you my impressions. The next thing that we know, the trial has been held and the man has been convicted and sentenced to die.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
And it's first degree murder.
PAULI MURRAY:
Yes, it's first degree murder. This case has been kicking around all summer before our committee or board or whatnot and I'm sitting as a member of that board and immediately feel a personal responsibility for not having done something.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Now, as board member, are you field secretary at the same time or were you field secretary after?
PAULI MURRAY:
No, I was field secretary after.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
O.K.
PAULI MURRAY:
Also, I identified, because six months earlier, I had been arrested in Virginia. Remember that this case happens in the summer of 1940 and it was in…well, three months earlier, it was in March, 1940 that I have my Waterloo. So, there are all these emotional pulls and identifications. When the Workers Defense League asks me if I will go down and investigate and see what I can come up with, then I go down to investigate and my quest leads me from southwest Virginia where Odell Waller lived to Richmond, to the death house, only to discover that if I am not a lawyer, I can't interview him in the death house. So, all of this is tying up. Eventually, I was able, eventually on the second trip down, I got permission to interview him. Then, I think that it is on a second trip that I go down to try to raise some funds among the local ministers.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
And his mother is also engaged in this?
PAULI MURRAY:
Yes, his mother is engaged in this. I think that it is in Richmond that I want to come before, or ask permission to come before the local ministers alliance, the Negro ministers alliance, only to discover that Dr. Leon Ransom, who is Professor of Constitutional Law and Criminal Law at Howard University, also …I think that it is Ransom and maybe Thurgood Marshall, I'm not sure …I think it may be the two of them …are coming before the alliance that day and first, obviously, to make an appeal for four young Negro boys who have been convicted or are on trial for rape. This was a real cause celebre. So much has happened, there is just one thing after another, that they give me five minutes. They almost say, "What do you want? We don't really have time for you, but we will give you five minutes to say what you have to say." I get up to speak and maybe for the first time in my life, I get out two words and then I just burst into tears and stand there and just utterly collapse in tears trying to tell the story of this young sharecropper. I won't tell you how embarassing it was to me, but it was like a miracle. It brought forth, after these men had already shelled out for Thurgood and Leon Ransom and whatnot, it brought forth twenty-three dollars and in those days, for an unknown case and an unknown person and on the heels of this cause celebre, this was almost unheard of. So, this began both my identification with the case and a two year struggle. But meanwhile, back at the hotel, Thurgood, I guess …I think that Thurgood was on that trip …anyway, Dr. Ransom was there and Dr. Ransom was acting dean of the law school and I just kind of, you know, rapping back and forth, said, "Well look, if I'm going to be messing around with these cases, I might as well study law." He said, "Come on, we'd love to have you." I said, "Give me a fellowship and I will." He says, "O.K., I'll give you a fellowship." It was in that kind of banter back and forth that sure enough, he went back and sent me the papers. I filled them out, almost forgetting about them and went on my way, working on the Odell Waller case, spent the summer writing and planning to write a book, to write what later became Proud Shoes, and toward the end of the summer, out of the clear blue, I got a letter from Ransom stating that, "You have been admitted to law school and awarded a scholarship."
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Would you mention one thing before we leave Waller and move to Howard Law School, and that is, the poll tax and the jury …
PAULI MURRAY:
O.K. Our defense, our appellate, that is, our appeal to try to get Waller's case reversed, was based upon the fact that he was convicted by an all poll tax jury. The jury lists being based upon the voting lists and the voting lists being based upon the payment of a poll tax, which was cumulative for at least three years. Since I think that it was about a dollar and a half a year, it would mean that a person who didn't pay his poll tax for three years had to pay four dollars and fifty cents and this was almost prohibitive for sharecroppers. So, you had a poll tax jury which, for all practical purposes, was a planters jury. Our contention was that such a jury was a denial of equal protection and of course, that the poll tax …this was calling into question the constitutionality of the poll tax. In due course, that argument became the law of the land. I think that it was the Harper case some years later (1966) and so, the Virginia poll tax was struck down as unconstitutional. In Waller's case, unfortunately, he was represented by an inexperienced but very well intentioned lawyer. And while the instincts of the lawyer were correct, and that is, an attempt to show that Waller had been convicted by a poll tax jury, he had not put in the record evidence, the kind of foundational evidence that would permit him to raise the constitutional question before the Supreme Court. So, purely on the basis of procedural limitations, we could not get the Supreme Court to take the case, because in scanning the record, they could not find the basis upon which to raise the question.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Right. We know that a federal question must be raised before the Supreme Court.
PAULI MURRAY:
Right. And I kept saying to myself as this happened, and I'm in there pitching, not as a lawyer, but as a special field secretary raising funds, working with the lawyers and that kind of thing, and I kept saying to myself, "If we lose this man's life, I must study law." And we lost his life.