In Part 1 we learn that it's a Saturday night in September, and hasn't rained in about two months. A rumor is going around that a black man has done something to Miss Minnie Cooper. None of the men in the barber shop know what went down. One of the barbers, a man named Henry Hawkshaw (Hawk for short), says that he knows the black man, Will Mayes, and Minnie, a white woman around forty years old. Will, the barber says, can't be guilty.
Angrily, a man in the barber shop, Butch, asks how the barber can take the word of a black man over that of a white woman. Hawkshaw implies that because Minnie is unmarried and "old" she imagines that men are coming on to her. The man being shaved by the barber asks if the barber is calling Minnie a liar. Hawkshaw holds the razor over the man's throat and says he isn't. He repeats his insinuation about Minnie. Butch calls him a "niggerlover" (1.15).
The argument continues along these lines. Butch and some of the other men argue that a white woman's word has to be acted upon as truth (when it comes to black men anyway). Hawkshaw argues that more facts are needed, and insinuates that Minnie is unreliable, due to her lack of sexual experience.
A man named McLendon bursts into the barbershop. He asks the men if they "are going to sit there and let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson" (1.28). Butch explains that he's been trying to express that same point to the men. Another man questions this new twist to the rumor – rape – and brings up a previous rumor about Minnie. the story goes that she had accused a man of looking in her window as she took off her clothes, about a year ago.
McLendon says it doesn't matter if the rumor is true or not. Now that it's a public rumor, Will needs to be turned into an example. Hawkshaw says they need more information. He is largely ignored. McLendon, who has a gun, succeeds in getting all the men to go with him to find Will. After they leave, Hawkshaw follows them out, telling the other barbers he needs to stop them.
In Part 2 we meet Minnie. She is one or two years shy of 40. She lives with her mother and her aunt. She relaxes on her porch in the morning, and gets dressed up in thin, bright dresses and goes to town in the afternoon with her female friends. Her family was fairly well off, but not "the best" (1.2). She used to be fairly cute, but when her friends from "better" families started looking down on her and ignoring her, she began to look strained and eventually dropped out of the social scene.
She saw all her friends get married, but no one made a play for her. When she was 26 or 27 she started dating a widowed bank clerk who smelled of liquor. Everybody in town felt sorry for her; they also considered her an adulteress. When Minnie was about 30 the bank left Jefferson for Memphis, and the widowed blank clerk leaves. When he came home for Christmas he didn't see Minnie, but the townspeople made sure she heard how well he was doing. Minnie has developed a drinking habit, too. Her days seem unreal to her, and at night she goes to the movies, and notices that the men in town don't look at her anymore when she walks by them.
In Part 3 Hawkshaw finds McLendon's group and gets in the car with them. When the other car of angry men passes, McLendon drives after them, and drives out of town. The conversation that began in the barber shop repeats until they reach the road near the ice manufacturing plant where Will works. Both cars stop and the men get out. McLendon calls for Will. Will arrives and asks what the problem is, saying he is innocent of any wrongdoing. The men rough him up, handcuff him, and put him in the car. McLendon and the barber's client are in the front seat.
Will is in the backseat in between Hawkshaw and an ex-soldier. Butch is outside the car on the running board. Hawkshaw begins to feel sick and when the driver won't stop to let him out, he jumps. He hides in a ditch until the other car of angry men passes, and then starts walking toward town. When he hears cars, he hides. He sees the second car pass him on the way back to town, and then he sees the first car, the one in which he'd been riding. Now there are only four men in the car. Butch is no longer on the running board. Hawkshaw keeps walking toward town.
In Part 4 we return to Minnie. She is getting dressed for the evening meal. She's shaking like mad and acting distressed. Her friends ask her if she should leave the house, and demand details of her encounter with Will when she feels better. They walk toward town and Minnie calms down. When they reach the town square she gets really nervous. She hears people talking about her, and about the rumor. She hears people ask what happened to Will, and that he is "All right" and that, "He went on a little trip" (4.3). As she walks past the men she notices them watching her body.
In the movies Minnie sits watching the young couples and begins to laugh hysterically. Her friends get her home and into bed. They cool her with ice, but can't stop her from laughing, and screaming. They wonder if something really happened between her and Will.
In Part 5 we see that McLendon gets home at midnight. His wife is awake and has been up reading in a chair. She stands when he comes in. He gives her evil eyes until she looks at the floor. He warns her that he hates it when she waits up for him. He grabs her shoulder. She says she just couldn't sleep. He throws her down on the chair.
McLendon walks to the screened in porch where their bed is (presumably only in the summer), puts his gun on the table, takes off his clothes, and tries to wipe the sweat from his body. As he pushes his body against the screen, everything is completely quiet, under the night sky.