Nine-year-old Cassie Logan heads to school on her first day with her brothers, twelve-year-old Stacey, seven-year-old Christopher-John, and six-year-old Little Man. The four children, Papa, Mama, and their grandmother Big Ma, are a black family living in Mississippi. The family owns four hundred acres of land, half of it is mortgaged, and Papa must work half the year on the railroad far away to pay for it. Mr. Granger, whose family owned the land during slavery times, wants to buy it back and constantly threatens to take it from them.
On the way to school, a thirteen year old troublemaker, TJ Avery , and his younger brother Claude tell how the Berrys, three black men, were burned, and killed by two white men. A white boy, Jeremy Simms, starts to walk with them. He goes to the white Jefferson Davis County School while they go to Great Faith Elementary. At school, Cassie and Little Man get in trouble with the teacher, Miss Crocker.
Papa returns unexpectedly from the railroad with a very big and strong man named Mr. Morrison, who got into a fight with some white men and lost his job on the railroad. He was going to be staying with the Logans.
Every day in October, the children walk to school in the rain and mud and get splashed by the bus driver of the white school's bus. After being forced off the road into a muddy ditch, Stacey talks his sibblings into digging a whole across the road at lunchtime to make it look like the road was flooded. After school, they watch from the forest as the bus drives into it, breaking its axle, flooding its engine, and leaving the white students without a bus for two weeks.
Later, the children hear that the "night men" are out. Cassie sees cars approach the house in the middle of the night and then turn around. Later, TJ tells him they tarred and feathered a black man, Sam Tatum, for accusing Jim Lee Barnett,a white man of cheating him.
Stacey takes the blame when he's caught with TJ's cheat-notes during a test and is whipped by Mama. He follows TJ to the Wallace's store, where he's not allowed to go, and punches TJ, before Mr. Morrison catches him and brings him home. There, Mr. Granger has just finished threatening to take the land from Big Ma. Stacey confesses to Mama, who punishes the four children for going to the store by taking them to see Mr. Berry, who was burned so badly he can no longer speak. Mama begins to arrange a boycott of the Wallace and Barnett stores.
Big Ma takes Stacey, Cassie, and TJ to the market in Strawberry. While Big Ma talks to Mr. Jamison, a friendly white attorney, TJ looks at a pistol in the store. When Mr. Barnett is serving white customers, Cassie tries to remind him that they are still there, he calls her a "little nigger," then throws her out of the store for arguing with him. In the street, Cassie bumps into Jeremy's sister Lillian Jean and is forced by Mr. Simms to say, "I'm sorry, Miss Lillian Jean." Uncle Hammer comes to visit for Christmas and tries to go after Mr. Simms. Mama explains to Cassie that Big Ma had no choice but to not confront Mr. Simms. Uncle Hammer drives the family around in his new Packard and gives Stacey a new coat. TJ makes fun of him in it because it is so big on him, so Stacey gives it to TJ so he can wear it until it fits. Uncle Hammer makes him give it to him permanently for being irresponsible enough to let TJ take it. On Christmas, Mr. Morrison tells the story of how his entire family was killed when an angry white mob attacked his house, where two young men accused of molesting a white women had hidden, the Christmas he was six.
Big Ma puts the land in Uncle Hammer and Papa's names to protect it. Mr. Jamison agrees to give credit to the families that have agreed to have Papa shop for them in Vicksburg. Mr. Granger, who owns the land where the Wallace store is, threatens Uncle Hammer and Papa, he tells them that they are going to lose their land.
Cassie pretends to be friends with Lillian Jean, calling her Miss and carrying her books until one day she takes her into the woods and fights with her, pulling her hair until she apologizes for threatening to tell the secrets she shared. Mama fails TJ on a test for cheating, and in return, he tells white men that work at the Wallace store about her covering the inside of the books. Kaleb Wallace, Harlan Granger, and another man from the school board came to Mama's class when she was teaching a lesson about the injustices of slavery, look in the books, and fire her.
Stacey stops being friends with TJ, and TJ starts hanging around with RW and Melvin Simms, who are eighteen and nineteen and white. Mr. Avery, Mr. Lanier, and several other people stop buying goods in Vicksburg. On the way back from Vicksburg, buying goods white families, Papa, Mr. Morrison, and Stacey must stop when the back wheels fall off the wagon. As they fix them, the Wallaces truck stops behind them and someone shoots at Papa, grazing his temple. The horse frights, and the wheel of the wagon rolls over Papa's leg, breaking it.
Papa can't go back to work on the railroad. Uncle Hammer sells his Packard to pay off the mortgage. He brings the money the week of the revival, a religious and social event, but has to leave quickly so he doesn't have to explain how he got the money. TJ shows up at the revival with RW and Melvin, who he says are his friends and who will buy him anything, even the pistol at the Barnett Mercantile. When everyone ignores him and goes into the church, TJ gets upset and leaves with the Simms brothers.
That night, it thunders and Mr. Morrison watches outside the house. TJ taps on the door in the middle of the night and tells Cassie and Stacey he broke into the Barnett Mercantile with RW and Melvin to steal the gun. When Mr. Barnett came to their house to investigate, RW and Melvin, who had stockings over their faces and gloves on their hands, hit him with the flat side of the axe. When his wife came down and saw her husband, they threw her against the stove, knocking her out. TJ threatened to tell, then they both beat him up. He asks Stacey to help him home, and all four Logan children end up walking TJ back to his house in the middle of the night. The Logan children watch from the woods as the Wallaces, Simms brothers, and other whites break their way into the Avery house and drag out the black people inside, beating them.
After hearing the story from Cassie, Papa leaves with his shotgun and Mr. Morrison. Soon, Mama notices smoke coming from the cotton. She and Big Ma go off to fight the fire which in the cotton which is heading towards the woods. Before morning, Jeremy Simms comes by and says that all the men have gone to fight the fire and that Papa and Stacey are all right. Then, it begins to rain, and after an hour, the fire stops.
Cassie and Little Man rush to the cotton where they see white and black men and women putting out the rest of the blaze. Mama and Big Ma take them home. There, Stacey tells them that Mr. Jamison tried to stop the hanging and Mr. Granger would do nothing until he smelled smoke and sent all the men off to fight the fire. That's when Mr. Morrison went to get Stacey in the woods. Cassie realizes that the fire didn't start from lightening, like everyone thinks, but that it was set by Papa. Papa and Mr. Morrison arrive home and Papa tells Stacey and Cassie that TJ is with the sheriff and will probably be put on the chain gang where he could die. Stacey bursts into tears and runs off. Papa follows him after he puts Cassie to bed. In bed, Cassie cries for TJ and the land.