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The Strange And Complicated Case
of Hattie Lee Barnes

Mac Gordon

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Joe N. Pigott never believed Hattie Lee Barnes, a black woman, killed a white man for any reason other than self-defense in 1950’s Mississippi.

Charles B. Gordon, my father, who covered the case from start to finish for the McComb Enterprise- Journal, agreed with Pigott. Finally, so did, of all people, famed segregationist Circuit Judge Tom P. Brady, who set Barnes free.

The iconic legal case – one of the few in that era of hardcore white rule in which a black person got off for killing a white – is the subject of LSU Press’ forthcoming book, “Roadhouse Justice,” by Mississippi native Trent Brown.

Barnes was a bartender and caretaker of a honky-tonk on the Pike-Walthall county line in Southwest Mississippi. When a prominent white Tylertown man, Lamar Craft, broke into Barnes’ bedroom in the beer joint through a window in the middle of the night, she shot him dead.

The 21-year-old woman was acquitted in Pike County Circuit Court of murder charges for the April 17, 1951, shooting of Craft. She later was “freed from the grip of Mississippi law and courts,” as Brown wrote in “Roadhouse Justice.”

Her court-appointed lawyer was Pigott, handling his first significant case after law school. His brilliant final statement on Barnes’ innocence led Brady to direct the jury to “retire briefly and return with a not guilty verdict, which they did,” Brown wrote.

Needless to say, I am proud of my father’s reportage on the case and of his trial coverage. With no transcript of the murder trial available, “The fullest, most reliable source for what happened in that courtroom is Charles Gordon’s reporting,” Brown said.

A Yale graduate, Brady later delivered a famous speech entitled “Black Monday” in which he degraded Blacks and their lifestyle. He also pushed to shut down the NAACP and to disband the nation’s public schools as a move to evade forced integration, and suggested creation of a 49th state for Black people.

Joe Ned Pigott, the father of Jackson lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Brad Pigott, became a respected district attorney and circuit court judge after leaving private law practice. Pigott died in 2015 at 90-years old. When handed the Barnes case, he was Pike County’s newest and youngest lawyer.

Pigott had distinguished himself in World War II as a paratrooper and intelligence officer. He was twice captured by the Germans behind enemy lines, escaping both times. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne. On April 28, 1945, Pigott and 2 other soldiers were among the first to find the \ executed former dictator Benito Mussolini hanging upside down in a Milan piazza.

As a lifelong McComb resident, Pigott was a leading citizen involved in every worthwhile project in the community. He and his wife, Lorraine Holleman Pigott, were among the founders of the Pike County Arts Council and many other civic interests.

There’s plenty more to the connectional Hattie Barnes-Joe Pigott-Tom Brady story that only a powerhouse book like Brown’s can bring forward. Between the time Barnes shot Craft and was set free six months later, she was wounded in a shooting by Rob Lee, who owned the roadhouse where she shot Lamar Craft. It’s complicated.

At the trial’s end, Brady said all the right things: “If the circumstances were reversed and a white lady had defended her bedroom against … a black man, we would not be here trying her for murder, but would be consoling her for her horrible experience. My oath and our constitution and laws require that I stop this trial and release the defendant.”

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