Odell Waller was a 25 year-old black sharecropper in Virginia in 1942. He and his white landlord, Oscar Davis, got into a fight over 52 sacks of wheat, which Waller harvested and were his. But Davis would not release them. While Waller was away, Davis evicted the sharecropper's wife and mother from their tin-roof shack. Waller, after returning and becoming enraged, shot and killed Davis. An all-white jury convicted Waller of first degree murder, the sentence being the chair. The verdict was made even more egregious when in the same Virginia county a white farmer who murdered an unarmed black sharecropper was acquitted in 15 minutes and was set free on $1,000 bond.
Waller, using what little grammar and spelling skills he had, wrote this statement:
Have you thought about some people are allowed a chance over and over again then there are other allowed little chance some no chance at all. ... In my case I worked hard from sun up until sundown trying to make a living for my family and it ended in death for me. You take big people as the President, Governors, judges, their children don't never have to suffer. They has plenty of money. Born in a mention [mansion] nothing ever to worry about. I am glad some people are that lucky. The penitentiary all over the United States are full of people who was pore tried to work and have something, couldn't so that maid them steel and rob.
Just weeks before his scheduled electrocution, Waller also wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, champion for the downtrodden, to allow him a chance. She pleaded FDR to at least place Waller in the army. But it was inappropriate for the president to try to use the bully pulpit to influence a decision that was left solely to the governor of Virginia, Colgate W. Darden. FDR weighted his choices and decided to write a letter to the governor anyway, asking if he could forgo Waller's death sentence. At that time the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take action, leaving the governor to listen to Waller's counsel to consider commutation. But in the end, Darden decided against it.
Odell Waller was electrocuted on July 2.
Paraphrased from FDR (pgs. 568-572)