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Joe and Ella Mae Hamilton, having just moved into a new neighborhood, are confronted by an angry, jeering mob of whites outside their house. As Ella Mae tries to soothe their baby, Joe thinks back to his life before he got married, when he worked in a bar to make ends meet: Despite having to face repeated racial indignities and injustices, Joe dreams of joining the army, going to college and having a career. Joe is brought back to the present by the arrival of police officers. As the officers try to calm the crowd, Joe recalls his college days: Joe attends college on the G.I. Bill and works in a café, where he meets and becomes good friends with Jerry Pearson, a white student. Jerry eventually introduces Joe to his future wife Ella Mae, and is often harassed for hanging out with Joe. Jerry resents his father for expecting him to buckle down and join the family real estate business after graduation, but decides that if he has to go into the business, Joe will be his first customer. Joe is returned to the present once again by Jerry's arrival on the scene. As the three friends watch Jerry's hypocritical father on television, preaching American racial and religious equality to a group of refugees, Jerry recalls his father's outrage at Jerry's decision to sell Joe and Ella Mae a house. Jerry's musings are interrupted when Ella Mae serves dinner. While they eat, Joe remembers his courtship of and marriage to Ella Mae, whose quiet strength and wise advice helped him make some difficult decisions about his life: Despite the reluctance of Joe's boss at the café to award Joe a promotion, life is good for Joe. He is about to graduate from school and he and Ella Mae are becoming serious. As the courtship progresses, Ella Mae introduces Joe to her brother, Lloyd Martin, who reared her. Lloyd's assumption that Joe is going to become a teacher bothers Joe, who dreams of joining a public relations department at a major company. Ella Mae balks at Joe's grand plans and challenges him to name companies that would hire a black man for such a position. After Joe and Ella Mae marry, Lloyd and Joe have a heated argument concerning Joe's future plans. Lloyd scoffs at Joe's ambitions and predicts that he will end up working in the steel mill. Lloyd explains that he had big plans, too, but grew tired of rejection and prejudice. Lloyd's predictions prove true as Joe is rejected by every company to which he applies and he is forced to seek work at the mill. Even though the work is tough, the mill affords Joe a certain degree of racial equality. He is chosen for a promotion over white competition and socializes freely with the other men at work and during the mill picnic. Joe and Ella Mae, expecting a child, decide to move out of Lloyd's house. This angers Lloyd, who accuses Joe of not knowing his place and of wanting too much, too soon. Joe explains that he must try to make a better world for the sake of his child. The argument is left unresolved as Joe is brought back to the present, to face the angry mob outside his house.