In “A Shot in the Moonlight,” journalist Ben Montgomery uses court records and newspapers to tell the story of a man who not only escaped a lynching mob but managed to get back at its members in court during the Jim Crow era.
The setting is Simpson County in southwestern Kentucky, on the border with Tennessee. There an African American tobacco farmer, George Dinning, lived with his wife and 11 children on a small farm. Emancipated by the 13th Amendment as a child, Dinning came of age during the hopeful years of Reconstruction, only to see Black aspirations for equal citizenship dashed after 1877.
Dinning nevertheless managed to buy 150 acres of the very land on which he had once been enslaved. But buying a farm did not buy security. In the last quarter of the 19th century, African Americans increasingly faced segregation and disenfranchisement. Apartheid and white supremacy were enforced by night riders and lynch mobs.
On a moonlit night in January 1897, Dinning and his family woke to such an armed mob as some 25 White farmers surrounded their house. Disguising their voices so as not to be recognized as the neighbors they were, the violent extremists accused Dinning of thievery, ordered him to leave the county and fired at his house.
Shot in the arm and forehead, Dinning scattered birdshot from the upstairs window, mortally wounding the son of a wealthy neighbor. He escaped the mob by hiding in a field. The next day, he turned himself in to the sheriff, who secretly spirited him to a neighboring town to protect him from the lynching mob gathering outside the county jail. Meanwhile night riders returned to Dinning’s farm, turned out his family and burned their home to the ground.
That summer, Dinning was tried for murder back in Simpson County. Gov. William Bradley, a Republican and an advocate for Blacks, sent soldiers and two cannons to protect him. An effigy of the governor was soon hanged on the courthouse lawn. Bradley also banned guns in the courtroom to prevent Dinning from being murdered during the trial, overruling the judge in the case.
On the stand, the night riders claimed they had approached Dinning as a friend and had fired only in self-defense. Despite admitting that they had been “kukluxing” (as terrorist mob activity was known), none were ever indicted.
Dinning testified on his own behalf, as did, courageously, his 12-year-old daughter. Montgomery quotes extensively from the trial transcripts, showing their refusal to be tripped up. Between the vigilantes’ shifty stories and the Dinning family’s unwavering on the stand, public opinion outside Simpson County began to turn in Dinning’s favor. Yet the all-White local jury found him guilty of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to seven years in the state penitentiary.
Local businessmen and others besieged Bradley for a pardon. The Lexington Morning Herald editorialized: “Dinning is a negro; he is poor; he was a slave; he may be unworthy; but he is a citizen, a man, a husband and a father, and it was his home and he was its defender.” The governor agreed. As Montgomery explains, the “castle doctrine” was a sacred principle in Anglo-American law, and for many Whites it trumped racism.
Freed from prison, Dinning moved to Indiana, where he barely survived a brutal attack. The perpetrators were never found. Once he recovered, an undeterred Dinning pursued in federal court the Kentucky night riders who had cost him his freedom and his livelihood. He was represented by Bennett Young, a Confederate veteran, celebrated lawyer, entrepreneur and do-gooder for White and Black causes. Young was also a prominent supporter of the Lost Cause.
Dinning won his cases, and several more thereafter, though his opponents never paid all they owed him. For the rest of his life, Dinning supported his family as a teamster and laborer. He died of a stroke in 1930.
Montgomery makes much of Young’s political leanings. Yet in many ways, the defense lawyer personified Kentucky’s relationship with Civil War memory. The only Southern state not to secede, Kentucky instead allowed its citizens to choose sides. While Young fought for the Confederacy, many more Kentuckians enlisted in the Union army. However, as historian Anne Marshall chronicled in “Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State,” White Kentuckians increasingly turned secessionists after 1865. The lawyer’s support of Southern redemption would not have stopped him from taking Dinning as a client. Men like Young realized that racial moderation helped business without endangering white supremacy.
Dinning’s case may have been the first where a man won damages against his would-be lynchers. Yet as Montgomery points out, drawing on the work of historian Melissa Milewski, quite a few African Americans won civil cases against Whites in the Jim Crow South. The cases upheld private property, painted Blacks in paternalistic terms and did not really threaten white supremacy in the same way voting did. The assistance African Americans received from White lawyers was important, for sure. But lawyers could win their cases only because of their clients’ courage and determination to get justice.
Missing from the book is how the African American community supported Dinning. We get only glimpses: A minister bought him a new suit to wear in court; a neighbor risked his life in testifying on his behalf; church members in Louisville helped him find his feet by paying him to lecture about his ordeal. No doubt there were many others. But the people who sustained him, including his family, as well as Dinning himself, take a back seat to ex-Confederate supporters in the author’s examination.
It’s a compelling story, despite the White-savior trope. Lynching and the Lost Cause unfortunately are not relegated to history as we fight our own battles over racial justice and white extremism. The display of Confederate symbols, not to mention the noose, in the Capitol insurrection in January is only one prominent example.
A Shot in the Moonlight
How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Soldier Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South
By Ben Montgomery
Little, Brown Spark.
283 pp. $28