It is 1933 in a town in Mississippi. When the Logan children return to school after the summer, they hear from their oldest brother Stacey’s friend, T.J., that some white men burned three black men for allegedly flirting with a white woman. This sets the tone for the book, as the children continue to deal with racial violence and injustice throughout the year.
After Papa hears about the burning, he returns unexpectedly from the railroad with a very large black man named Mr. Morrison, who stays with the Logans as an extra security measure while Papa’s away working. Papa also warns the children to stay away from the Wallace store, since the Wallaces are the ones responsible for the burning.
Meanwhile, Papa and Mama organize a boycott of the Wallace store among the black community. The problem is that many of the sharecropping families don’t have cash and can only buy groceries from the Wallace store because their landowners have credit there. Thankfully, a kind white lawyer, Mr. Jamison, agrees to provide credit for the families who have decided to have Papa shop for them in Vicksburg rather than patronize the Wallaces' store. Mr. Granger, a local landowner who keeps a number of black families working his land as sharecroppers and who wants to get back 400 acres of land his ancestors sold to the Logans, threatens to make the Logans lose their land if they don’t stop the boycott. Papa ignores the threat.
Stacey stops being friends with T.J. after T.J. gets Mama fired from her teaching job by telling the Wallaces that she teaches material that isn’t in the textbook. T.J. starts spending time with R.W. and Melvin Simms, older white boys, instead. Several black families are forced to stop shopping in Vicksburg when Mr. Granger threatens to have the boycotters placed into chain gangs. On the way back from a trip to Vicksburg, the Wallaces attack Papa, Mr. Morrison, and Stacey. Papa’s leg is badly injured. Mr. Morrison fights off the Wallaces, hurting two of them badly.
With his new injury, Papa can't go back to work on the railroad, and then the bank demands that they pay the mortgage on their land immediately. Uncle Hammer, Papa’s brother who now lives in the north, manages to come up with the money to pay for it by selling his fancy car. He brings the money on the first day of the revival, an annual gathering of the black community. T.J. shows up at the revival as well, with R.W. and Melvin, who claim that they will help T.J. get the pearl-handled pistol he admires at the Barnett store in Strawberry. Stacey and the others continue to ignore T.J. and head into the church for service.
That night, Cassie hears T.J. tapping on the porch door in the middle of the night, and when she lets him in, he tells her and her brothers that he broke into the Barnett Mercantile with R.W. and Melvin to steal the gun. When Mr. Barnett came down to investigate the noises, R.W hit him with the flat side of an axe. Mr. Barnett’s wife thought all three of the boys were black. Afterwards, T.J. threatened to tell the police, so the Simms boys beat him up and left him in the back of their truck. T.J. asks Stacey to help him get home, and all four Logan children help him return to the Avery house.
As soon as T.J. gets in, however, several white men appear and drag the Avery household outside, beating T.J. some more. They want to hang him immediately, and one of the Wallaces suggests that they hang Mr. Morrison and Papa too. Mr. Jamison tries to stop them, but he’s unable to. Cassie and her younger brothers run home to tell Papa, while Stacey stays to see where the white men take T.J.
Papa listens to the story, and Mama begs him not to use his gun, since she’s afraid he’ll get killed too. Papa sees lightning flash and gets the idea to set the land on fire. The fire stops the hanging, as all of the men join together to stop the flames from spreading. T.J., however, remains in jail, and possibly awaits a death sentence for killing Mr. Barnett. Cassie lies in bed and cries for T.J. and for the land.