When Anne is four years old, she and her mother, Toosweet, her father, Diddly, and her younger sister, Adline, live in a two-room shack on a plantation. None of the shacks of the black plantation workers has electricity or indoor plumbing, while the Carter family’s house has both. At night, when the white family’s house is the only one lit up, Anne’s mother says the plantation owner is counting money he made off of them. While Anne’s parents are out working in the fields during the day, George Lee, Toosweet’s eight-year-old brother, watches Anne and her sister inside. Resentful of having to babysit, George Lee hits the girls and one day accidentally sets the wallpaper on fire while trying to scare them with matches.
Amid anxieties over money, the fire, and the death of his best friend, Diddly eventually leaves the family for an affair with Florence, a lighter-skinned black woman. Toosweet and the children, who now include a son, Junior, eventually move to at least six different houses over the next six years. Toosweet works as a waitress at a café for blacks, and then as a maid for white families. Toosweet’s family is constantly hungry, often eating only bread and beans supplemented by table scraps from Toosweet’s white employers. Still, Anne does exceptionally well in school. In the fourth grade, Anne begins working part-time cleaning the houses of white families. She will continue working until her senior year of high school, spending most of her after-school hours doing menial jobs in order to put food on the family’s table. Most of her employers are fairly easy to get along with. The Claibornes even encourage Anne in her studies and ask her to eat with them at their table. But Mrs. Burke, a nasty woman and a racist, makes life difficult, especially when her son Wayne grows close to Anne. Mrs. Burke finally accuses Anne’s brother Junior of stealing in order to get back at her, relenting only after leaving both children shaken. Anne quits.
Meanwhile, Anne has begun to attract the attention of the boys in her high school and the men in her community. When she outgrows her school dresses, she wears jeans, which she cannot afford to replace even when they grow tight. She becomes so popular with the boys that she is elected homecoming queen. Diddly even provides Anne with a beautiful gown, making the homecoming parade one of the few joyful moments of her young life. When Anne is still very young, her mother develops a romantic relationship with Raymond Davis, with whom she has four more children. Raymond’s family, especially Miss Pearl, Raymond’s mother, looks down on Toosweet because she has darker skin than they do. Yet Anne enjoys their new home in Centreville, and especially Centreville Baptist Church, the upscale church Raymond’s family attends. When Anne’s mother wants her to attend their old, poorer church, Anne gets into the first of many serious conflicts with her mother.
In the summer of 1955, when Anne hears that Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, has been brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, she becomes acutely conscious of the racial inequality around her. As a younger child, she struggled to understand the inequity between the races, and she gains no more understanding of this fact as she grows older. She wonders if there are any real differences between blacks and whites, save for the fact that the black women clean the white women’s homes.
When Anne first hears about the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), a forbidden organization in rural Mississippi, she begins to contemplate how the racial inequalities around her can be overthrown. Meanwhile, however, her own struggles with her family are more pressing. Toosweet feels that Anne is starting to look down on her, especially when Anne changes her name from Essie Mae to Annie Mae because she thinks Essie Mae sounds like a name for barnyard animals. Anne’s family does not understand Anne’s growing interest in the civil rights movement; in fact, they are afraid of it. Anne spends her last three summers of high school in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, doing menial jobs for more money than she could earn at home. Eventually, Anne can no longer stand the family, especially Raymond, and she storms out and moves in with her father, Diddly, and his wife, Emma. Emma and her family are light skinned, but do not hold themselves above anyone, and Anne grows close to them.
Anne accepts a basketball scholarship to Natchez College, a suffocatingly conservative Baptist college in Mississippi. There, Anne has her first boyfriend. She eventually transfers to Tougaloo College for her final two years of college. At Tougaloo, she joins the NAACP, in spite of the strong protests of her mother. The local sheriff even tells Anne’s mother that Anne must not attend NAACP events or it will mean trouble for her family. Nonetheless, Anne becomes active in the NAACP and the civil rights movement, despite her family’s impassioned pleas for her to quit.
Anne participates in the famous sit-in at the lunch counter of the Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi. She later works as a CORE (Coalition for the Organization of Racial Equality) activist in rural Madison County, Mississippi, where she and the other activists are the targets of violent threats. After exhaustive work, Anne concludes that the movement has not improved the lives of people in Mississippi. It has focused too much on voter registration and even political theater, such as the Freedom Vote, a mock vote intended to protest disenfranchisement of blacks. Instead, Anne wants the movement to focus on economic issues, such as helping black farmers buy their own land. At the end of her memoir, twenty-three-year-old Anne is getting on a bus to Washington. The bus is filled with volunteers who all seem far more exuberant and younger than she. As they sing “We Shall Overcome,” Anne wonders if blacks will ever really overcome racism.