It's October 1933 and back-to-school time for Cassie Logan and her three brothers. Wait, what? Back to school in October? You might ask, "How can I get in on that late back-to-school action?"
Don't be jealous. We soon find out that these children start school late because they're poor African Americans living in rural Mississippi, and their hard labor is needed on the family farm. That's why their school year is shortened—it starts late and lets out early. Plus, no fun back-to-school shopping for these kids.
On the way to school, the Logan kids hear about how three local black men were burned (yes, literally—and two to death) by a white family for supposedly "flirting" with a white woman. Shortly after this happens, Papa (Cassie's father) returns from his job at the railroad and brings with him a enormous man, L.T. Morrison. He's going to stay with the family for a while, because of the recent burnings and lynchings in the area. Papa wants his family protected while he's away working.
As the school year progresses, the kids get some pretty nasty lessons in racism. And it turns out that the Wallace family is behind the burnings. These guys own the local store that many of the black sharecroppers are forced to shop at. Luckily, the Logans are a bit better off than the other black families, because they own their own land and have cash to spend. Papa tells Cassie over and over how important this is, and that he will pretty much do anything to keep the land in the family.
So, Mama (Cassie's mom) organizes a boycott of the Wallace store and arranges for the local black families to get credit from a store in Vicksburg, the nearby biggest town. Bad move. The boycott doesn't go over too well with the Wallaces. On their way back from Vicksburg, Papa Logan, Mr. Morrison, and Stacey (Cassie's older brother) are attacked by the Wallace brothers. Big mistake #2, but this time for the Wallaces: the huge Mr. Morrison roughs them up pretty badly (he almost breaks one's back). In the process, Papa is shot (luckily not fatally) and ends up with a broken leg when the horse wagon falls on it. And then, Mama gets fired from her teaching position because of the boycott.
One night, the Logans' friend T.J. breaks into the Barnett store, egged on by some white kids. The Wallaces find out and are moments away from hanging him for his supposed crime when a fire starts on some nearby land. Everyone runs off to put out the fire, and it turns out that Papa started the fire to prevent T.J. from being killed by the lynch mob.
Sadly, his action may not do any good. T.J. is blamed for the death of a white man, and he'll either be put on a chain gang or hanged for murder. Plus, it looks like the Logans might lose their land because Pa burned part of his own cotton crop. Talk about a bummer of an ending.