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Adam Cramer, a member of the reactionary Patrick Henry Society, arrives in a small Southern town to instigate a campaign of hatred designed to arouse white citizens into opposing integration of local schools. Full of surface charm, he ingratiates himself with the townspeople and persuades them to harass black youngsters attending the previously all-white high school; his only articulate opponent is newspaper editor Tom McDaniel, who feels bound to obey the law. Cramer makes an enemy by seducing Vi Griffin while her husband, Sam, a traveling salesman, is out of town; later, when the guilt-ridden Vi runs away, Sam senses that Cramer is responsible. Meanwhile, the town's mood becomes increasingly violent as a black minister is killed by a bomb tossed into his church; in addition, McDaniel loses an eye in a confrontation when he leads black students into school. Cramer then warns McDaniel's teenaged daughter, Ella, that he will kill her father unless she accuses a young black, Joey Green, of attempted rape. The frightened girl agrees, and a lynch-hungry mob lashes the boy to a schoolyard swing; under the prodding of Griffin, however, Ella arrives and publicly confesses her lie. Ashamed and furious at having been deceived, the crowd withdraws, leaving Cramer without support.