In 2009, an elderly Cecil Gaines recounts his life story while waiting at the White House to meet the newly inaugurated president. In 1926, at the age of seven, Gaines is raised on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia. When the farm’s owner rapes his mother, Hattie, his father, Earl confronts him and is killed. Cecil is taken in by the estate’s caretaker, who trains Cecil as a house servant.
In 1937, at the age of eighteen, Cecil leaves the plantation. Desperately hungry, he breaks into a hotel pastry shop. The elderly master servant, Maynard, takes pity on Cecil and gives him a job. Cecil learns advanced serving and interpersonal skills from Maynard, who later recommends Cecil for a position in a Washington, D.C. hotel. While working there, Cecil meets and marries Gloria, and the couple has two sons: Louis and Charlie.
In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. White House maître d’hôtel Freddie Fallows introduces Cecil to head butler Carter Wilson and co-worker James Holloway. Cecil witnesses Eisenhower’s reluctance to use troops to enforce school desegregation, then his resolve to uphold the law by racially integrating Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
Louis, the elder son, becomes a university student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, although Cecil feels that the South is too volatile. Louis joins a student program led by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist James Lawson, which leads to a nonviolent sit-in at a segregated diner, where he is arrested. Gloria, who feels that Cecil puts his job ahead of her, descends into alcoholism.
In 1961, after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Louis and others are attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan while on a freedom ride to Birmingham, Alabama. Louis participates in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, where dogs and water cannons are used to stop the marchers, one of the movement’s actions which inspires Kennedy to deliver a national address proposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After Kennedy is assassinated, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, enacts the legislation. As a goodwill gesture, Jackie Kennedy gives Cecil one of the former president’s neckties.
Louis participates in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, which inspires Johnson to demand that Congress enact the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson also gives Cecil a tie bar.
In the late 1960s, after civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Louis tells his family that he has joined the Black Panthers. Cecil orders Louis and his girlfriend to leave his house. Louis is arrested again. Cecil becomes aware of President Richard Nixon’s plans to suppress the Black Panthers.
Charlie confides to Louis that he plans to join the war in Vietnam. After enlisting, Charlie is killed and buried at Arlington National Cemetery. When the Black Panthers resort to violence, Louis leaves the organization and returns to college, earning his master’s degree in political science and eventually running for a seat in Congress, although Cecil continues to hold resentment against him.
Cecil repeatedly confronts his supervisor at the White House over the unequal pay and career advancement provided to the black White House staff. With President Ronald Reagan’s support, Cecil prevails, his reputation growing to the point that he and his wife are invited by the Reagans to be guests at a state dinner. Cecil becomes uncomfortable with the class divisions in the White House. After witnessing Reagan’s refusal to support economic sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, Cecil resigns.
Gloria encourages Cecil to mend his relationship with Louis. Realizing his son’s actions are heroic, Cecil joins Louis at a protest against South African apartheid; they are arrested and jailed together.
In 2008, Gloria dies shortly before Barack Obama is elected as the nation’s first Black president. Two months, two weeks and one day later, Cecil prepares to meet the newly inaugurated President, wearing the articles he received from Kennedy and Johnson. White House Chief Usher Stephen W. Rochon approaches Cecil and tells him the president is ready, preparing to show him the way to the Oval Office. Cecil tells him that he knows the way.