20 October 2010

Civil Rights News on My Deceased Grandparents

“From slavery to segregation, we remember that America did not always live up to its ideals. In fact, we often fell far short of them. But we also learned that fundamental to our national character is the drive to live out the true meaning of our creed.”
~ Bill Frist


It was a cool to receive some information that I never knew about my grandparents which is featured in a cold case study by the Northeastern University School of Law, entitled "Lost Life, A Miscarriage of Justice: The Death of John Earl Reese". There is not even a Wikipedia page on him. My mom and my aunt have been recently associated with efforts to memorialize and honor John E. Reese, 16 who was sitting in a local Cafe on October 22, 1955 in Mayflower Texas having a soda when he was shot and killed by white supremacists bent on stopping a new school for black kids from getting built. My grandfather was the school bus driver at the time and he helped organize and ferry black voters to the polls which helped spur the funding for the school. There wasn't much publicity on this case. This travesty of justice occurred on the heels of Brown vs. The Board of Education as well as the equally horrific Emmit Till lynching. This cold case report revealed that my Grandfather, H.C. Thompson had overheard men talking of murder since the town had the go-ahead to build the school. A couple of guys got in a car and basically did a drive-by, shooting and injuring two girls, ages 15 and 11, and killing John Earl Reese with a shot from a .22 rifle in the head. They then preceded to shoot up more houses that happened to belong to more of  my kin as well as paying a visit to my Grandfather's residence. They shot up his school bus and car parked at his home. You didn't leave the buses at the school in those day.

My grandmother gave a report on the incident expressing a lack of faith that justice would be served. Just as she feared, a cover-up ensued and it was revealed that public officials were actually related to the shooters, such as the town judge who was a cousin of the guy who pulled the trigger. In one such instance, the grandmother of the girls who were shot was arrested. They tried to say she conspired to kill the two girls for insurance money. Other black men were brought in for questioning to elicit a confession. It wasn't until the Texas Rangers got wind of the matter and began a state investigation. The real culprits where finally brought in and a confession was given. A trial ensued, but the man was released when the jury let him go with a 5-year suspended sentence from a guilty without malice verdict, ruling the Reese's death an "accident". Around this same time in Birmingham, Alabama, Time Magazine reported on Reese and pointed out that another similar trial proceeded where black man was on trial. He fire his own court appointed representative and tried to defend himself to prove that he was not guilty of burglary. He lost and was found guilty. He  got the electric chair. The school in Mayflower was eventually built, but was abandoned 12 years later due to integration from the Brown ruling.

All efforts in the Civil Rights movements did not go lauded into the history books. I had never even heard this story til now. My granddad (I called him Daddy) never sat me down to speeches of hate, nor a malice of heart toward white people. He did quite often talk to me about Jesus, the Bible, and love. He always appeared to be sleeping in church, but when I "told it on him" to my Grandmama, she clued me in that he wasn't really sleeping. Sure enough one eye popped open and stared at me for about 10 seconds. Scary..

My grandmother welcomed my white ex-wife into the family and even brought her into the kitchen and taught her how to cook. (My wife sucked at cooking when we were first married.) Daddy used to play with my son on his knees, refusing to call him Jeremy, insisting on Jeremiah instead. Daddy was a little frightful at times. By the time he met my kids he didn't have but a few teeth left in his head. He had a scruffy, yet sometimes high-pitched voice, and a bald head. Little kids were scared of him til they got to be familiar with him. Except for his asthma, the man looked in pretty decent shape for his age. A firm grip was his handshakes. He liked to laugh but he didn't put up with mess. His memory was more intact than mine when I was 20. He taught me to drive before I was a teen-ager. I drove to church along back country roads or to the "Store", which was reminiscent of the General Stores, where I bought a Baby Ruth and a RC cola. How did I get my own money? Daddy drove slowly behind us while my brother and I collected cans along the highway. There weren't lawns to be mowed or cars that needed washing. Houses were further apart and they usually had their own kids to take care of that, or you needed a tractor to cut grass.

He was born in 1901 and died in 1996. It was the first time I ever had anyone close to me pass away. I can tell you I hurt so bad, I passed out. I was in Korea at the time, serving in the Army. My job was to Patrol the DMZ. I hadn't been in country 3 weeks before the North Koreans, got stupid and felt like playing games. By the end of the situation, I found out that news of my Grandfather's passing had been intentionally kept from me til after the situation was over with. So when we were ordered to finally stand down, and the North Koreans retreated to their own side, I was approached with a Red Cross message, but was not told about who was in trouble or what the situation was. One of my superiors understood that I was getting ready to blow my stack. I was still heavily armed at the time. He pulled me off the side and told me the deal. I walked away and got no more than 5 steps before I planted my face into the gravel. My armaments, grenades, and ammo were stripped from me, but while I was being hoisted away to medical, I came to. I was running out of time. The delay was putting me at risk of not making it home in time to honor the biggest man in my life at his funeral.

My cousin was former military and was familiar with how to address the Red Cross message. If he hadn't said I was raised by my grandfather, I would not have been allowed to leave. His statement was partly true. He did raise me for the first 2 years of my life while my mom was in college, but afterwards, he still took part in my rearing, just indirectly. It also helped that I had become close friends with my chaplain. Taking the bus to the different Commands and bases to get signatures and then get to the airport would not have been doable. The Chaplain called ahead so I got the proper clearances and let me use his car and driver. I'll admit we had a minor accident on the highway when he almost missed his exit, but I ordered the driver to not stop under fear of pain to get me to the airport. I'd deal with the consequences when I got back. We made it with 11 mins to spare. I attended my Grandfather's funeral in my Army Dress Uniform since my personal clothes were still on a ship heading to Korea. Yeah, that was my Daddy.

6 comments:

Joanie said...

What a beautiful tribute to your grandfather. Better still that his story is being told.

Photo Anthems.com said...

Indeed. I got to see all the research and official documentation on the case from one of the links from the University on John Reese. I don't know how well my Grandfather knew him, but it would be safe to assume he knew Reese well. This was a very small town and my Granddad was the bus driver. Close knit communities like this stuck together and watched out for each other's kids.

unbearable lightness said...

We must always remember and be sure all the stories get told. You came from good people, T. With all the misfortunes, having family like this - including you as the grandson - is good fortune.

Photo Anthems.com said...

Thanks U.L.. Those are some nice sentiments.

Dave Rudin said...

A sad story but I'm glad it's finally being told. I'm glad that you were able to get back for Daddy's funeral. We can see that you really loved him a great deal.

Photo Anthems.com said...

Daddy got to live a long and fruitful life. Out of 6 kids, 4 are ministers in churches and all are productive people in society. He was a blessing to so many people while he was here. I still miss him and Mama Carrie...dearly!