In 1957 Alabama, Margaret "Maggie" DeLoach (Ally Sheedy) returns to the Alpha Kai Delta sorority house at Randolph University after spring break. She tells her best friend, Delia June Curry (Virginia Madsen), that she is ready for some kind of change. That night, the girls go to "Ma Beechie's" nightclub where they meet a handsome man named Hoyt Cunningham (Treat Williams). Over dinner, they learn that Hoyt is an Associated Press photographer covering racial issues in the area. Delia believes that racial integration will never come to Randolph University, but Hoyt warns that the escalating racial tensions are not something to dismiss. Maggie's rebellious, non-sorority friend, Aiken Reed (Phoebe Cates), challenges her to think outside the box and consider dating someone other than her popular, fraternity boyfriend, Boots Claibourne (Don Michael Paul). However, Delia believes that marrying Boots would be a dream come true.
In time, Maggie meets Boots' parents, Judge Courtney (Richard Bradford) and Coralee Claibourne (Barbara Babcock), and sees the cotton plantation where they live. When Maggie shares Hoyt's belief that black students will try to integrate Randolph University, Judge Claibourne becomes incensed, and claims that blacks have no reason to riot. Later, Boots uses a derogatory racial epithet to accuse Maggie of aligning herself with Hoyt.
Delia is stunned when she learns that Maggie is considering a move to New York City with Aiken Reed after graduation. She insists that Maggie marry Boots, and she will marry her boyfriend, Jenks Foley (Peter Berg). Soon after, the friends go to a bar, and after a night of drinking, Jenks and Delia get into an automobile accident in which Jenks is killed.
Some time later, Maggie sees Hoyt Cunningham on campus, and he invites her to an Elvis Presley concert. She reluctantly accepts after he accuses her of being afraid to spend time with him. At the show, Maggie witnesses a black man being beaten by white concert goers, and is stunned when police arrive and continue beating the innocent man. Disturbed by what she sees, Maggie visits sorority cook, Keefi (Francesca Roberts), who also witnessed the incident at the concert in Keefi's black community. The cook gently tells Maggie that what happened is none of her business, and she is naive if she thinks she can do anything about injustice. Keefi lights a candle for Martin Luther King, Jr., and tells Maggie she is placing her faith in the civil rights leader, and God.
Maggie visits Hoyt and criticizes him for doing nothing but take photographs during the beating. After seeing the powerful images, however, she embraces him. At the sorority house, Maggie refuses to join in on the sorority president M.A. (Lisa Zane) and her friends' frivolity. She writes an article on racial inequality for the university newspaper, and editor Charles Payton "Tuck" Tucker (Kyle Secor) worries they will both be expelled if he prints it, but he agrees to present her column to the publication board.
Later, Aiken Reed tells Maggie she is pregnant and leaving school to move to New York City with her sister. Maggie wonders how she can survive without a husband, but Aiken is excited about her new adventure.
Dean Howard (Hazen Gifford) tells Tuck and Maggie he does not approve of the article and threatens to expel both of them. When Maggie asks Delia Curry to read her story, her friend is too preoccupied being queen of the Honeysuckle Ball to respond. Tuck and Maggie decide to publish the story, and as a result she is expelled and Maggie's friends refuse to speak to her.
Before leaving school, Maggie ends her relationship with Boots, much to his dismay. While listening to her car radio, Maggie learns that the first black student has registered at Randolph University, and will begin school the next day.
The following morning, reporters and military personnel arrive on campus to protect the student as she arrives her first day. Maggie watches, and returns the brave girl's glove to her when she drops it. Afterward, Maggie embraces Hoyt Cunningham. Delia approaches, arm-in-arm with her new boyfriend, Boots, and bids farewell to Maggie, promising to never forget her.