When Jimmy Price (Jim Brown) wins an upset victory for sheriff, he becomes the first black man ever to hold the job (or any elective office) in anyone's memory in his rural southern county. He also sets off an ominous rumblings as the entire county seems split apart by his presence -- Mayor Parks (Fredric March) offers him the support of his office, but many whites aren't prepared to accept a black man as sheriff, while most of the whites that can accept him aren't saying so too loudly; a lot of older black residents, remembering decades of Jim Crow laws that only lately disappeared, are more confused than encouraged by Price's victory, while younger, more radical black citizens like George Harvey (Bernie Casey) have little use for Price's straight-arrow personality; they expect him to show them favoritism, and when he doesn't, they suspect him of being an nothing but a white man in black skin. Even Price's own wife (Janet MacLachlan) wonders if the cost of his being sheriff is too high. He finds himself alone, walking a tightrope between all of the forces pulling at him, and then the whole situation threatens to explode when he arrests the good-for-nothing son (Bob Random) of a wealthy man from the next county, who has killed a child while driving drunk. Soon the local klavern of the Ku Klux Klan is planning a meeting, and a lynch mob seems to be gathering across the county line to break the prisoner loose and take care of the sheriff. Price finally gets some unexpected help from his embittered predecessor, John Little (George Kennedy) -- Little would like nothing more than to sulk over losing his longtime job, but with his wife's coaxing he realizes that he can't let Price fail without the risk of destroying everything he worked for years to build.