In October, surviving members of the Mayflower community will be remembering one of the earliest martyrs of the civil rights struggle across the United States.
A young black teenager named John Earl Reese, 16, was murdered in a drive-by shooting while sitting in Hughes Cafe on Texas Highway 149 with his cousins Joyce Nelson, 13, and her sister Johnnie, 15.
The murderers were two white men, Perry Dean Ross, 22, and Joseph Reagan Simpson, 21. Both were convicted of the crime, but never spent a day in jail. Their sentences of five years were suspended.
On Oct. 23, 55 years after the night Reese lost his life, the few remaining alumni of the Mayflower School will join the entire Tatum community to dedicate a memorial in the name of John Earl Reese.
Clifford Harkless, who grew up in the small community just north of Tatum, said he hopes it can help heal old wounds while also educating future generations about the mistakes of the past.
“This is not about retribution but education,” he said. “We’re not trying to stir up old animosities but to learn from them […] to see how far we’ve all come and how much farther we have to go.”
Harkless added that a plaque in the Tatum Public Library, as well as the historical marker, would be included.
Rusk County Pct. 2 Commissioner Mike Pepper agreed, saying even shameful moments in history can serve a noble purpose.
“It’s helpful to see what progress we’ve made,” Pepper said. “Things are so much different now, and better, but there’s always room for improvement.”
Reese, struck in the head and neck by the errant gunfire, later died at a Longview hospital while his two teenage cousins were shot in the arm.
A series of shootings occurred at black schools in East Texas before Reese was killed. These shootings, much like that of Reese, received little attention in the local media of the time.
Following the drive-by shooting that left Reese dead, Ross and Simpson sped through the rural black community with Ross firing a rifle at two nearby houses and an empty school bus used by black children.
The two would later acknowledge three such drive-by shootings in Mayflower, although they were never charged in the incidents.
Both Ross and Simpson claimed they drove by the café with the intent to “make a raid” because of frustrations with “uppity blacks,” as well as the recent ruling on segregation.
The defense attorney told the court that Ross “wanted to scare somebody and keep the niggers and the whites from going to school together.”
According to court testimony, Ross aimed a .22-caliber rifle out of the window of the car, firing several rounds.
Ross confessed, “I held the steering wheel with my left hand and laid the gun across the left door. I was going about 85 miles per hour at the time and I fired nine shots into the café.”
An all-white jury found Ross guilty of murder “without malice” in April 1957. Simpson pleaded guilty to the same charge a few months later. The fact that neither had a criminal record was used to justify the lightest possible sentence.
It was a painful outcome for Reese’s family members, many of whom still live in the area. It was a miscarriage of justice and a case that grew cold over time. Until it came to the attention of a special cold case unit of the FBI, as well as a law professor in Boston, Margaret Burnham.
Like other cold cases from the civil rights era, Reese’s illustrates “the massive breakdown in law enforcement,” she said. “There were trials that were not fair, and justice was not achieved.”
“Reese’s case was treated very lightly by the state,” Burnham said.
Burnham based her conclusions on law enforcement documents and court records her project found in the Texas State Archives in Austin and the Gregg County courthouse in Longview, where the murder trial took place.
Kaylie Simon, a third-year law student of Burnham’s at Northeastern University, said the crime is one of many that occurred during the Civil Rights Era, a volatile period where the victims rarely if ever received the fair trials guaranteed to them by the Constitution.
Simon said she began researching the case both to help shed light on something that occurred in the past, as well to understand how it has shaped a community in the present.
“I believe passionately in learning from our history,” she said. “As a white person, I think it’s important to understand the things in the past in a way that we can all truly learn from them […] and, hopefully, help build a better future.”