In A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest Gaines offers a distinctive view of justice. Rather than identify the criminal who killed a man, the “old men” of the title are determined to prevent his killer from being identified. And to reduce the likelihood that anyone will target an individual who did not commit the crime, they will all pretend to be responsible. In addition, an innocent white woman also plans to confess. Collective action will help them to forestall a gross miscarriage of justice. Their fears are entirely justified, because they are African American men living in a Southern town, and the dead man is white.
This complicated plan has been put into place in part because the body of the dead man, Beau, is in the yard of one man, Mathu, so everyone is sure he will be accused. Beau’s father will likely rally other white people to exact vengeance, probably by lynching Mathu, but the Sheriff wants to pursue at least a semblance of a legal solution. Because Beau was killed by a shotgun blast, the specifics of the plan are that all the men will bring their shotguns to Mathu’s house, along with the same type of shell, and will fire the guns. Meanwhile, Candy, the white woman, will claim to have done the crime.
The broader implications include the vast question of what constituted justice in the rural South at that time. The courage and pride of the elderly men represents a turning point in collective resistance, soon to take the national stage in the Civil Rights movement. One of the young, white characters, in particular, draws attention to the wider world: Beau’s brother, Gil, is a college football star, and respects the prowess of his black teammates; he wants no part in a revenge killing founded in racism.