Richard Henry, Meridian’s murdered son. Seen in flashback sequences, he is a musician whose attempt to find fame in New York ended bitterly with his incarceration for heroin addiction. In his twenties, he returned to his hometown still resentful of his father’s inaction concerning the suspicious death of Richard’s mother. To whites, Richard is abrasive, threatening, and too boastful of his sexual prowess, especially in regard to white women. To blacks, he is a proud, bold young man who refuses to suffer quietly the indignities experienced by African Americans in a racist society.
Lyle Britten, a store owner suspected of murdering Richard. He is a lower-class, uneducated white man who speaks crudely. A family man, he has aspirations of expanding his business so that he can better provide the means to care for and educate his infant son. Although he admires his white wife and is proud to be a racist, he prefers sex with black women. Lyle feels threatened by the unwillingness of Richard to acquiesce to the town’s racial social order.
Josephine (Jo) Gladys Britten, Lyle’s wife. Better educated than her husband, she married Lyle out of love and a desire not to end life having never married. She suspects her husband of infidelity and knows that even before Richard’s murder, Lyle had killed a black man (the husband of his mistress). Still, she staunchly defends her husband’s virtue and lies about the events leading up to Richard’s murder.
Parnell James, the editor of an unpopular town newspaper. Reared in a wealthy household, he is an iconoclastic middle-aged white man. He labels himself as a liberal but enjoys his privileged racial status. He cannot reconcile his private feelings about the exotic nature of African Americans with his public statements claiming no difference between the races. Caught between his friendships with Meridian and Lyle, Parnell claims that he desires the conviction of Richard’s murderer. He appears unwilling to divulge evidence, however, that would cast doubt on Lyle’s innocence in the crime.
Juanita, a college student and civil rights activist. A black woman of strong convictions, she aspires to be a lawyer and use the judicial system as a means to achieve racial equality. Highly attractive, she is desired by Meridian and Parnell but chooses to become Richard’s lover.
Joel Davis, called Papa D., a black owner of a juke joint whom black people consider to be an Uncle Tom. His disclosure that Lyle was the last person to see Richard alive forces the authorities to arrest the white man on suspicion of murder.
Arthur, black college students and civil rights activists. They distrust the judicial system and have little hope for the conviction of Richard’s murderer.
the Reverend Phelps, and
George, friends of Lyle, all bigoted and narrow-minded white townspeople. They are adamantly opposed to social change, especially that which promotes racial equality.