Mississippi is a wealth of history and stories, many known and some yet to be discovered. Wilma E. Mosley Clopton is helping highlight those hidden gems with her documentary, “Mississippi Justice,” a short film that follows the 1951 case of Hattie Lee Barnes. The African American woman in Pike County shot and killed Robert Craft, a white man, in self-defense after he broke into her bedroom window. Barnes was arrested and put on trial for murder, but ultimately, her white attorney Joe Pigott helped her win the case.
Clopton graduated from the University of Mississippi Filmmaking Workshop and the Barefoot Filmmakers Workshop. Her work includes 12 short films, five books, a play and a Margaret Walker Alexander coloring book for children. She is the recipient of the 2011 Mississippi Humanity Council’s Educator Award, the 2014 Mississippi Art Commission’s Media Fellowship Award, and the multiple-year winner of the Mississippi Film and Video Alliance’s Emerging Filmmaker Award. Women for Progress, Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Center and the Mississippi Historical Society have recognized her work.
The film premiered in 2019 but reemerged for a screening at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s “History Is Lunch” in June. Barnes is an unsung hero who can offer a beacon of hope in a time of bleak circumstances and upheaval. Clopton talked to the Mississippi Free Press about the making of “Mississippi Justice” and the film’s importance and relevance in the wake of Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality.
How did you come to learn about Hattie Lee Barnes? My mother was born and raised in McComb, Miss., and she had never heard of the case before, so I’m interested in how you discovered her.
Well, it’s because (of) a gentleman who was our photographer, and his name was Robert Whittington. He was kind of enough to tag along everywhere we went or the guests we interviewed, he would photograph them for us. You never know how things are going to fall into place. … As he began to become more familiar with my work, he mentioned to his brother, Ronnie Whittington, about what I did. Ronnie told him that he had a story to tell me, and I said, “OK.” He told me briefly about it, and I told him I would get to it as soon as I can. Well, that “as soon as I could” took three years, but Ronnie was kind enough to hold everything.
… One day my husband and I went down to visit Ronnie, who is an attorney in McComb, and I filmed my interview with him, and he had this wealth of information about the Hattie Lee Barnes case. Transcripts, newspaper clippings, just everything, and he began to tell me the story, and I was just fascinated. So that’s how it happened. You never know how your steps are ordered, but you can see how I ended up getting involved in a most important case that happened in 1951.
I wondered why you decided to go with secondary sources for the documentary. I figured that everyone had passed on.
By the time I was able to get to Ronnie Whittington, Ms. Barnes had passed. I’ve been looking for her children because we really want to expand it to cover the rest of the trial that occurred because there was another one in ‘53, so we had to make a narrative film around that trial.
How did you proceed with finding Judge Joe Pigott’s son, Brad Pigott, and the other secondary sources you had like the clippings and Black Monday?
Ronnie Whittington gave me all the newspaper clippings, and also I was on the Mississippi Humanities Council board with Brad Pigott, and that’s how he and I met. I really didn’t realize it was his father until one day we were in a board meeting, and I had mentioned going down to speak with Ronnie Whittington and said to Brad something about it, and he said, “That’s my father.” I was wanting to interview his father, but he had just passed, so I missed that opportunity.
But Brad was just phenomenal in terms of the footage that he had from the beginning of the film of his father, as well as finding the information. When we went to get everything together in terms of editing the film, my editor had access to original documents. She was able to go online and access newspaper clippings, and we were able to get clearer versions of what we already had.
There was a particular bit in the documentary where we hear Judge Tom P. Brady speak of the inferiority of African Americans in an oral history recording of his “Black Monday” speech” by the University of Southern Mississippi. His speech was in response to the Brown vs. Board of Education integration decision in 1954. Talk to me more about why Brady was important to Barnes’ story in 1951.
He was a founding person of the Citizens Council. When Joe Pigott appealed to (Brady’s) dignity and his credibility in the community (over the Barnes case), he left Brady with the decision with how he wanted to view himself because he was already considering himself a leader and an influencer in the community. He was very proud of the fact that he thought he was always right, so that’s what that was about. It was showing the dilemma for which he was struggling internally.
In order to keep (Brady’s) own self-image of what he thought he was, he felt convicted to do what he did, and that was to release her because he always felt that he was carrying out the letter of the law. And that’s how he was rationalizing that decision, even though he clearly says the n-word race is inferior. What he was doing was trying to stay on course with his view of himself.
Can you tell me about the trial in 1953?
So after she was tried and released, she went on to Arkansas to live. Because they were looking for Rob Lee, and they had warrants out for him, they tracked her down in Arkansas and brought her back to Pike County and locked up her because they said she was a material witness to Rob Lee killing Mr. Craft. They kept her there while they were searching for Rob Lee.
She eventually was released not because she had the money, but the town once again said it was not right to keep her in prison while they were looking for someone else. The town raised the money to get her out of jail. I always compare it to the O.J. Simpson trial where he was acquitted, and people were extremely distraught over that. And so they spent an inordinate amount of time to find other ways to put him in jail.
Well, that’s what they were doing with Hattie Lee. She should not have gotten away with killing this young man down there, but she did, and so they had to find another way to make her pay for killing somebody white. That’s really why I say they kept her in jail so long in 1953. It harks to now where people who (have) limited funds, are poor, they have no resources, and they’re kept in jail even on a bond because they cannot afford to get out of jail.
You do some really interesting tricks while filming this. There is the reenactment of the court proceedings. You also zoom in to Mr. Whittington’s face as he reads Mr. Pigott’s closing argument. There’s also music underscoring the tense scenes. What did you hope to accomplish with these effects?
Well, people don’t realize that it’s not just a documentary. Film is also effective when they use subliminal cues. Stimuli, and that includes not only the way the word is heard, but also … the angle of a shot. It also has to do with the music because the music provides the tension. It’s always like “Jaws” when you hear the “dun dun dun,” you know that shark is coming. That’s how music plays into it. Also the shadow, there’s so much that goes into the shadows. The light and how you light, how you position a subject, even those factors add to the tension of the film, which gets the message across.
How did you get into filmmaking, and what keeps you making films to this day?
I used to own a public-relations marketing firm in St. Louis, and we made commercials for our clients. Well, that was many, many years ago. So when I came back home, I guess somewhere between 2003 and 2000-whatever, I ended up sitting next to Gus McCoy, who then was the president of the Jackson branch (of the) NAACP. They were on their 100th anniversary nationally, and he happened to say, “I wish that I had a film to show at our anniversary event.” I said, “Oh, I can do that.”
I had never made a film or documentary film, but I had made commercials. In my mind, I thought I could translate the making of commercials into a documentary film. That’s absolutely not true, and (what’s) even more interesting is that at that point, I was using a lot of archival footage in my film. He wanted four people in the film: Medgar Evers, Margaret Walker Alexander, Baron Henry and Fannie Lou Hamer. I thought, “Well, let me go get archival footage for that,” and it took a longer time than it does now to get footage from the Department of Archives and History, but by a blessing I was able to get it in a short time in order to make the deadline.
But the long story is that was the impetus for my film career. He trusted me enough to allow me to create something, which they did show at the party, and my film was only 10 minutes long. And I was late for my 10-minute film because I was so concerned how it would be received. When my husband and I arrived, it was at the (Edison) Walthall (hotel), and I looked and people were mesmerized, and they were watching it over and over, and they bought the DVD.
That was the beginning, and I realized there was a gap in knowledge still as it is now about our history, and that is what set my feet on the path. I tell people, “This craft will be what I leave this world doing,” and I enjoy it so much. I enjoy the information I find, I enjoy the people I meet, the stories which have been blessed to share with me. It’s so fascinating because we are telling stories that need to be told that haven’t been told.
What is your focus now?
Now, we’re focusing on social justice issues, but we focus on the things that happened (that) positively influenced and changed the system, and people do not know about it. All we know was that it changed, but we’ve been subjected to the people that other people have deemed appropriate for us to know about. But this village is enormous.The people that kept steering the boat to get us to this point. It’s like you see the ducks floating down, but their feet are working like crazy.
All of those people, tons of people, that have done things that need to be recognized. I won’t be able to get them all, but at least, I hope I’m helping people understand that all of us are trying to move forward. I think the best thing I’ve seen lately (is) a lady holding a sign, it’s on Facebook, but it said we’ve always been protesting since 1619; it’s that you all have been pushing the snooze button. Well, we all have always been united in trying to make a difference in the perception of what people think about us because we knew we were greater than what people thought. It took a lot of us to do that.
Now, it was really interesting that someone as racist as Judge Brady was able to put aside his beliefs and be fair, which ultimately led to Ms. Barnes’ win and release. But it took some challenge from Mr. Pigott. In your opinion, if Ms. Barnes’ attorney had been a Black man, and he took that same approach as Pigott, do you think she would have won?
Please, now, you know that’s an oxymoronic question (Laughs). Shoot. First of all, she would have been gone, so the answer is no, he would not have been impressed.
(Laughs) That was my answer, too, but I wanted to ask. Now, had this been a Black man that talked to him that same way, I don’t think he would have ever let her go. I was thinking about Thurgood Marshall and his biopic movie, so that’s where the question came from.
He would have been called an uppity n-word. He would have been berated, or they would have said, “You’re different,” which they’ve always said to me and a lot of other Blacks like me. And they probably say it to you, you’re different because when you’re not mimicking what you should do, you have to be an anomaly. You’re not really like other people like you and in reality, we are.
They wouldn’t have even let him in the courtroom. He would have had to argue in the upstairs loft.
I won’t be able to get them all, but at least, I hope I’m helping people understand
that all of us are trying to move forward.
It’s a short documentary under about 30 minutes, and it gets straight to the point. I wonder if there was anything else that you wanted to add or if there is a longer version. Anything left out of the film?
No. My films are all intentionally short because we have been working diligently to get them in school systems. We have lesson plans to go with our films, so that teachers can teach from the film that they see and that it’s actually part of the curriculum. The lesson plans are designed around the state standards, so the “Straight Talk” book that goes with it has lesson plans in it for students in sixth through 12th. They can use that film to teach the specific standards. Even one (film) has a mathematics standard. I started several years making sure lesson plans were available with the film because the goal is to get them in schools. We can’t change if we’re teaching the same misinformation in the same way. So, if nothing else, I want people to know about Mississippi history in a different way.
In high school, they barely talked about slavery in the history books. All we learned about was the Civil War, World Wars. We didn’t learn anything real about history. They leave out so much.
Even in our film, the “Lanier Bus Boycott,” we have pictures from the Library of Congress of all the Black soldiers. There were thousands of Black soldiers, and I don’t mean just digging ditches. You need to see that film because it’s showing that we participated heavily in World War II, and that’s not recognized.
So if they’re going to teach about the war, then they can talk about Elport Chess, and that’s the reason the bus station was (named after) Elport Chess, who came back to Mississippi, eight years before Rosa Parks started a bus boycott, was coming back from World War II a new person. That was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, of the soldiers coming back who were disgusted that they would have to come back to servitude when they just lived and their friends died somewhere else fighting for those same rights in that other country.
So yes, what we have can widen what’s being taught in the school systems so that students like you won’t be coming out not knowing we contributed.
I would never know about Hattie Lee Barnes if it had not been for your documentary. Going into that, even Mr. Whittington, who had been practicing law for more than 30 years had no idea about that case. That speaks to what you talked about as far as people omitting certain stuff out of history.
Isn’t that something? I did an interview for a podcast, and I was talking about a system of omission that we know. People want to talk about systemic racism, but there’s been a system that has been put in place to create the omission to teach people to become racist, which is in itself oxymoronic because you know there is only one race, the human race, then why are you talking about racism because that has no place.
There’s no such thing as race; there’s ethnicity. People are from all different places, but they’re not different races. There’s only one race. But in order to make the argument that one race is inferior, you have to start teaching over and over and over again that we are all different. People believe it because it’s been taught for so long.
Right now, we’re in a time of protests, upheaval, hurt and anger. There was Ahmaud, then Breonna, then George. There’s a lot of other people that haven’t gotten any attention in the media like Vanita Richardson and Truvenia Campbell, Tony McDade, Dreasjon Reed. Two days ago, the missing body of activist Oluwatoyin Salau was found, who went missing, after reporting on Twitter that she had been molested. What is your take on everything that’s happening in the world? How are you feeling?
Oh, wow. Everything that is going on, everyone is saying it’s different because they’ve seen more white people involved. And I hate to see history repeat itself because it’s showing us that certain segments of our population have not learned a lesson, and if it’s not learned this time, it will happen again.
How do I feel? I feel disgusted. It’s still unfathomable to me that people would be so in denial, so adamant in their belief of superiority that they believe to kill someone else in order to maintain that superiority? And those same people practice on Sunday and talk about we’re one body in Christ, well, what are you talking about? Why does it stop when you walk through that door? That’s where my disgust comes. I’m not angry. I’m disgusted.
There’s no such thing as race; there’s ethnicity.
People are from all different places, but they’re not different races.
There’s only one race.
I’m also amazed that people can actually think that way. I have never understood that type of stupidity. I say that because I always ask people, “Are you ignorant, or are you stupid?” Ignorant people when given and faced with the truth have a choice. They can either accept that new knowledge and change, or they can continue the path to which they currently walk. That is when they become stupid because they refuse to acknowledge the truth.
So I get disgusted when people keep saying we need education. Black people with tons of education can’t get jobs right now. Who are you educating, and what (are you) educating them about because if you’re educating them, have you changed the education that you’re giving them? It’s tiring. It’s very tiring to have to go over and over and over the same thing in the same way, and that is why we have a whole group of people who have said, “I’m tired of this.” And my frustration is not over yet. Even though you may be tired of seeing me, I am tired and rightfully so.
In the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen a lot of calls to action for white allies to be attentive, listen and educate their peers who are the perpetrators of our oppression. How would you define an ally, and would it be far-fetched to say that Mr. Pigott was an ally? Is an ally someone that consistently does the work? If not, what could you call him?
That’s an interesting question. An ally is a person who realizes that there is an injustice, and they can be the foot soldier to change that injustice in that community. Since we didn’t create this problem, we shouldn’t fix it. Allies need to talk to other people who created the problem that they understand in their community because allies speak their language. They’ve heard their friends and peers say over and over that we are tired of hearing.
The ally is someone that can talk to someone since they created the problem. They are a part of the system that caused the problem. Let’s put it that way. And there are many allies. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors. But the problem has been that these allies have been allies in secret, and now it is time for the allies to step up and lead in their communities. Not to have another ’60s and ’70s smoke fest, but for real change.
So Mr. Pigott wouldn’t be an ally. Maybe he would be a changemaker?
He would be both an ally and a changemaker. He would be both because he is in the position to make the change.
The title of the documentary is “Mississippi Justice.” It’s specific to our state. Is there a difference in justice here versus justice, let’s say, in a state like New York?
Well, I can’t answer that not being a legal person, but I can say that in “Mississippi Justice” (and) “Straight Talk,” the three judges did talk about the Mississippi justice system and how the court system numbers are going to differ in different places. They also talk about how Mississippi’s court system is one of only four states that have a system like ours. That is discussed in the book.
Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of cases where police get off or the killer gets little to no jail time. But Ms. Barnes is one of the lucky people who gets justice because someone decided to challenge the status quo and defend her. Given all the changes and progress we’ve seen occur following George Floyd’s murder, do you think justice could be achieved in his case? We know it’s possible, but is it attainable?
The only thing I will say is that I am hopeful. But justice in the abstract is not the same as justice in reality because justice is administered by people, and people have flaws, so that’s why I say that I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that there will be someone who truly understands the meaning of justice, and that justice causes them to question their own goodness, and that wherever they stand causes justice to be implemented like Pigott did with Brady. That’s what I’m hoping will happen. Justice happens when you have to deal with a conflict within yourself.
It’s not just for Black children; it’s for all children because we have all been miseducated.
When people watch this documentary, what reactions do you get? Are there a lot of people that weren’t aware of this case and Ms. Barnes before watching?
In every documentary I’ve done, I get the same reaction: “I didn’t know that.” Some very diverse people (have seen my films), and I’ve shown them in a number of places, and they’re always amazed that it happened, and they always say, “I didn’t know that.” We did one on our forgotten roots, which traces the Masons’ influence in bringing in the Civil Rights Movement. It was shot in Boston, and my sound person for that film lived in Boston. And he said he was so amazed that he was in Boston, and he had never heard of all the stuff I had uncovered in the film. He’d just never heard of it.
Well that’s why we have people like you, and hopefully you’ll spark in change in someone to continue to do the work that you’re doing now.
Well we’re going to try to struggle on (Laughs), but it helps for people like you to talk to me and let people know that there are people like me. Because this path is not always the easiest path because there’s always difficulty with funding. There are tons of stories that need to be told, but I’m not telling the types of stories that everybody wants to hear.
You’ve done the work of getting Ms. Barnes’ story out there, and I’m going to do my part with this interview. But what else can do we keep her name alive in the public?
What I think is more important is what we can we do to get it in the schools. That’s where we’ve got to change what they learn. It’s not just for Black children; it’s for all children because we have all been miseducated. Every piece that we do I think would be worthy should be in the schools … So it’s a difficult problem, but to get the information into the school systems so that we can stop the nonsense of misinformation, that’s what we want to do.
What do you think your short film Mississippi Justice can offer in these times?
A place to start the conversation. When the film was shown at the Two Museums that day, there (were) 755 people watching us the entire time, and 60 comments were made. Now, almost 3,000 people have seen it. I’m getting orders for when the book is completed from North Carolina. So that’s the kind of stuff that I’m looking for is a place to start the information. A place to start talking. A place to start the conversation that’s not pointing the finger. That’s another problem with a lot of the conversation. Everyone knows it’s out there, black, white, green and yellow. But when we have an antagonistic environment in which you’re trying to employ it, it shuts people down. If you could start the conversation from a film, that’s a safe space to begin to see all the other things that happened.
It’s been a hard year so far with all the tragedy, murder and death. Taking into account everything that’s happened thus far, where do you think we can go from here?
To the polls and vote. Everything that says vote, V-O-T-E, not just for president, we need to vote. We need to vote with critical thinking, not with our hearts. We need to say: What is this person really like? What will they offer? What will they do for our community? And then cast that vote.