L.B. Jones, a wealthy African American funeral director in fictional Somerset, Tennessee, seeks legal representation from the local law firm run by Oman Hedgepath and his newlywed nephew Steve Mundine. Jones is seeking a divorce from his considerably younger wife Emma, alleging she had an affair with white police officer Willie Joe Worth, whom he suspects is the biological father of her unborn child.
In an effort to avoid a public scandal, Worth begs Emma not to contest the divorce, but she hopes to collect enough alimony to allow her to maintain the lavish lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. When she refuses to cooperate, Worth severely beats her, then, with the aid of fellow officer Stanley Bumpas, arrests Jones on false charges after he refuses to withdraw the divorce suit.
Jones escapes and eventually cornered, he confronts the officers and is handcuffed. He quietly and respectfully refuses to cooperate even at gunpoint, and Worth murders him, with Bumpas casually watching. Worth, initially cool, is suddenly horrified by what he has done and then even more so at Bumpas’s subsequent, but cold bloodily practical actions in treating Jones’s body like it was a side of beef and hanging it from a wrecker hook.
Bumpas slashes the body and removes Jones’s shoelaces to make it look like it was done by other black persons in a revenge-type killing. Initially another black man and Emma are forced to confess to the murder, but Hedgepath quickly discovers that the man was in jail at the time of the murder and also the confessions were obtained with a cattle prod which appears to be commonplace at the jail.
The charges are immediately dropped and Worth, who has been shocked by his own actions, turns himself in and confesses to Hedgepath and the Mayor, in part suggesting that Hedgepath may have accidentally, but with no intent, influenced him to take action.
Worth is willing to take all responsibility. However, he and Bumpas are not held accountable by City Attorney Hedgepath, who in typical Southern fashion, sweeps the problem under the rug, and makes himself a true accessory after the fact by disposing of the murder weapon and the murder is covered up quietly. The Mayor wants nothing to do with any of this and is happy that Hedgepath handles it so as not to disrupt the reputation of the community.
Hedgepath props up Worth enough with thoughts of his family so that Worth accepts the burden of guilt without the need to confess and although he gives Worth a choice it is clear that Hedgepath has significant influence over Worth. The two officers are not held accountable for their actions. However, almost immediately, Bumpas, off duty, is murdered very deliberately and coolly by Sonny Boy Mosby in partial retaliation for a vicious beating he once inflicted on the man.
Sonny had recently decided not to retaliate against Bumpas for the beating, but the murder and cutting up of Jones was apparently the final straw for Mosby. The murder is gruesome, but Sonny makes it appear to be an agricultural accident, rather than a revenge killing.
Worth keeps his job, Emma is under the presumption she will be getting Jones’s money, although there is a suggestion that she might have a little guilt and will be ostracized by the black community. Hedgepath is apparently abandoned by the remnants of his family with the Mundines moving out. Mosby, unsuspected, leaves town on a train, apparently with a clear conscience but a look of maturity.