It has not rained for sixty-two days, and a rumor has spread “through the bloody September twilight … like fire in dry grass.” Men gathered in a barber shop in—the air stale—discuss the rumor, linking a local white woman, Minnie Cooper, with a black man named Will Mayes.
The weather creates an oppressive backdrop throughout the story. The relentless hot, dry weather has riled the residents of this small Mississippi town, and the “bloody” twilight forebodes the violence to come.
The barber, Henry Hawkshaw, does not believe that Mayes was involved, insisting that he is “a good nigger.” Minnie is an unmarried woman of “about forty,” furthering Hawkshaw’s doubts. Other men in the shop angrily accuse Hawkshaw of being a “nigger lover,” but Hawkshaw insists that likely nothing happened at all; the others are aghast that he’d privilege a black man’s word over a white woman’s. Another client suggests that the “weather [is] enough to make a man do anything”—even to an unmarried older woman like Minnie.
The rumor linking Cooper and Mayes remains vague throughout the story, and none of the characters attempt to find out details or confirm it. Instead, most of the men readily portray it as a case of a black man victimizing a white woman and threatening the long-established racial boundaries. The comment about the weather reinforces the general idea that the heat and drought play an active role in the actions of these characters.
Hawkshaw holds his ground and urges the other men to get the facts before doing anything, but the clients insist he must not stand for this as a white man and further tell him to “go back North” (despite Hawkshaw having been born in this town). John McLendon, a decorated war hero, then enters the barber shop, immediately asking the patrons, “are you going to let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson?”
Hawkshaw establishes himself as a rational and principled man, focusing on Mayes’s character and reputation. The other men, however, view this defense of a black man as a betrayal of their identity as southern white men, as illustrated by their suggestion that Hawkshaw move north. The arrival of McLendon intensifies the discussion, especially as he is the first to use the word rape to describe the rumored encounter.
McLendon invites the men to join him in an as-yet unspecified plan of action, even as one client wonders aloud whether anything happened at all—after all, Minnie has had a “man scare” before. McLendon promptly dismisses this, insisting it doesn’t make a difference—they can’t let black men “get away with it until one really does it.”
McLendon doesn’t care whether or not the rumor is true and is willing to use this event as an opportunity to send a message to the black men of Jefferson—underscoring that the men’s actions are based on prejudice rather than a genuine desire for justice.
Hawkshaw continues to defend Mayes’s innocence and suggests that they gather evidence and go to the authorities, but nearly all of the men choose to leave with McLendon. As they go, McLendon’s gun peeks out from his waistband. Hawkshaw suddenly decides to join the men and rushes after them, commenting that “I can’t let…” The air outside, meanwhile, is “flat and dead.” Back in the shop, the two remaining barbers wonder aloud if “he really done it to her.”
The combination of the oppressive heat and McLendon’s enthusiasm has whipped the men into a frenzy of irrational anger. The gun peeping out of McLendon’s waistband foreshadows the violence to come. Hawkshaw, having failed to maintain calm among the men in the barber shop, joins them in the hopes that he can keep them from hurting or killing Mayes.