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Ben Montgomery’s ‘A Shot in the Moonlight’ an urgent piece of history

The true story of a Black man’s fight for justice in the Jim Crow South, aided by a former hero of the Confederacy, is resonant today.
Ben Montgomery's new book is "A Shot in the Moonlight."
Ben Montgomery's new book is "A Shot in the Moonlight." [ Morissey Montgomery ]
Published Jan. 21
Updated Jan. 21

A Shot in the Moonlight tells an amazing, compelling true story that was long lost to history — but that could not be more timely.

Author Ben Montgomery has done this before. As an award-winning reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, he was part of the team that broke the shattering story of the dozens of unmarked graves at the Florida School for Boys. His first book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, told the story of a little-known but remarkable woman and helped to create renewed interest in the Appalachian Trail.

A Shot in the Moonlight is the fourth book from Montgomery, who now works for Axios. Blurbed and blessed by such literary figures as Oprah Winfrey and Colson Whitehead, it’s a reminder that, as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The book’s story begins on a January night in 1897, when a band of gun-toting racist vigilantes awakens a 42-year-old Black farmer named George Dinning, asleep in his home in rural Simpson County, in southern Kentucky.

The men outside won’t identify themselves — although they are his neighbors, and he knows and has worked for many of them — and Dinning won’t open the door, fearful for his wife and children. The men tell him he’s been accused of stealing, taking meat from his neighbors’ smokehouses. He says he is innocent, and can prove it. The mob doesn’t care. He has 10 days to leave town, they say, and never return.

Guns are fired outside the house. Dinning, still inside, is wounded in the arm, and another shot hits his forehead, travels under the skin and exits near his hairline. He then fires his shotgun, once, from an upstairs window. A young man named Jodie Conn, scion of a wealthy local family, is hit in the head by the birdshot and dies minutes later.

Dinning runs for his life, finding shelter with a neighbor. The next morning, when he learns that Conn is dead, he walks 9 miles to the town of Franklin, where he turns himself in to the sheriff.

In daylight, some of the men in the mob return to the farm and tell Mollie Dinning and her children to leave. Never mind that Dinning, who had been born enslaved, owns the 125 acres, having bought the land from a family member; that he built the house and stable and other buildings with his own hands; that he grew wheat and tobacco, kept pigs and chickens; that he and his wife were raising 12 children.

The white mob wants the Dinnings gone. Terrified, Mollie and her children depart with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the family’s two horses, leaving in such a hurry that some of the youngest kids are barefoot in the freezing weather.

Not long after that, the house and the other structures on the farm burn to the ground.

It is a terrible story, and the most terrible thing is that, in its time and place, there was nothing unusual about it. More than three decades after the end of the Civil War, there was a rising tide in the United States of vigilante groups called Whitecappers or Regulators or, as they began to style themselves, the Kuklux Klan (Kuklux spelled as one word because it “was derived from the Greek word kyklos, meaning circle.”)

Just as common were lynchings. Montgomery punctuates his narrative with accounts of the lynchings of Black men, even women and children, hanged, burned, mutilated, shot hundreds of times by mobs that sometimes numbered in the thousands. Some of those lynched were accused of crimes, but many others died for the sin of being “uppity.”

None of them were tried and convicted; indeed, many of them were abducted from jails before any legal proceedings could take place. Such a lynching was what Dinning feared.

Sheriff Bud Clark in Franklin was acutely aware of that danger and soon spirited Dinning off to Bowling Green, 20 miles away. Thus began a legal process that is the extraordinary part of Dinning’s story. Dinning was convicted of Conn’s death, but his claim that he shot into the mob in self-defense brought him such widespread support from the white community that it led to his being pardoned by Kentucky Gov. Bill Bradley just weeks later. And Dinning went on to sue his attackers, and won.

Those legal battles introduce another remarkable part of the story, the man who became Dinning’s attorney, Bennett Young. A prominent white lawyer in Louisville, he was also an author, entrepreneur and philanthropist, notable for his founding and support of the Colored Orphans’ Home Society as well as for his frequent pro bono defenses of people of color accused of crimes.

Yet he was also, as Montgomery details, a hero of the Confederacy. As a young man he volunteered on the side of the South (although Kentucky remained a neutral state) and fought with distinction, at one point leading a successful raid on St. Albans, Vermont, the northernmost land action of the war. He proudly declared himself “a son of the South” and even led fundraising efforts for Confederate monuments.

Yet this supporter of slavery threw himself wholeheartedly into Dinning’s legal defense. How does a man who fought in the cause of white supremacy turn to fighting for justice for Black people? It’s a paradox Montgomery grapples with and finally can’t solve — although Young wrote voluminously about all sorts of subjects, he seems never to have written about this.

Montgomery embeds his story in rich historical background, but he lends it immediacy with extensive use of trial transcripts and newspaper accounts. Dinning’s trial is described almost entirely with direct quotation of testimony, which includes, among other vivid scenes, the white prosecutor bullying Dinning’s 12-year-old daughter on the witness stand.

Dinning’s case achieved a national profile but faded from memory over the decades. Nevertheless, it was an early example of the deployment of the legal system to fight racism that became one of the civil rights movement’s most useful tools.

Perhaps the most significant thing about George Dinning’s story, though, is that such stories are not history. As Montgomery writes in his preface, “The problem with the Confederate flag and the granite statues of dead soldiers is that the Civil War never ended. ... It rages on Facebook and in classrooms and in the streets of American cities, still. Its agents of trouble are Proud Boys and good ol’ boys and police with no-knock warrants and whites who should know better but choose silence.”

[ Little, Brown ]

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, 304 pages, $28

Watch

Tombolo Books presents a virtual book launch party for A Shot in the Moonlight, with Ben Montgomery in conversation with writer James Chapin, at 7 p.m. Jan. 26. Register at tombolobooks.com/?q=h.calevents.

Cathedral Church of St. Peter presents a virtual book talk by Ben Montgomery at noon Feb. 9. Register at spcathedral.org/book-talks for the link.