John Earl Reese

Background

John Earl Reese, 16, was murdered while in a cafe with his cousins Joyce Nelson, 13, and her sister Johnnie, 15. The murder took place in Gregg County, East Texas.

This murder occurred in the wake of the May 31, 1955 decision in Brown v. Board of Education II and soon after Emmett Till was lynched on August 28, 1955. At the time, Gregg County had a population that was three-fourths white and one-forth black. Whites terrorized black people to discourage them from attending formerly all white schools. In the summer of 1955, Kilgore Junior College (KJC) was the first junior college in Texas under a federal court order to desegregate. KJC became one of the last schools actually to do so.

A series of shootings at all black schools took place before Mr. Reese was killed. These shootings received barely any mention in the news. Similarly, the death of Mr. Reese did not get very much attention.

Two white men, Joe Simpson, 21, and Perry Dean Ross, 22, drove by the Hughes Cafe with the intent to “make a raid” because, they claimed, they were frustrated with “uppity blacks.” Ross’s lawyer later explained in court that Ross, “wanted to scare somebody and keep the n—rs and the whites from going to school together.”

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 cafe.” Both of the girls, Joyce and Johnnie Nelson, were shot and wounded. Reese was killed. District Attorney Ralph Prince of Longview described the murder as “a case of two irresponsible boys attempting to have some fun by scaring N—-rs.”

Joyce Nelson, one of the victims, recently told CRRJ, “We were children, doing nothing wrong.”

Legal Status

Local authorities were indifferent to the murder. It was not until months after the shootings that Captain Bob Crowder of the Texas Rangers opened the case. Both men confessed to the shooting. Simpson and Ross told police they had tied the gun to a log and tossed it in the Sabine River. District Attorney Ralph Prince found that police overlooked the murder investigation.

Ross was brought to trial in Longview for the “murder with malice” of Mr. Reese. The jury was comprised of twelve white people from East Texas. Ross’s lawyer, Gordon R. Wellborn, sought to mitigate the charge by showing that Ross was intoxicated. He asked the jury to “call it a bad day and let the boy go on in life.” The District Attorney argued that the jury should give Ross a jail sentence because “that will deter others from committing a similar crime.”

The jury returned a verdict for murder “with malice aforethought” and recommended a five year suspended sentence. Ross however, was released immediately.

Joe Reagan Simpson was also indicted for the murder of Mr. Reese. However, the indictment was eventually dismissed. Joyce Nelson told CRRJ that “after court, they just came home.”