The three were eventually acquitted by an all-white Orange County jury, and Cates’ murder was left unsolved. Despite surges of activism and outrage from many in the Chapel Hill community, his murderer was never held accountable.
The story of Cates’ murder was a centerpiece in the hours of demonstration leading up to Silent Sam’s forced removal by an unidentified group Monday night. Hundreds of people attended to watch speakers highlight issues they felt represented longstanding racism and abuses of power from the University and Chapel Hill community.
Maya Little, a grad student facing a vandalism charge and potential expulsion from the University for her peaceful protest against Silent Sam earlier this year, focused on Cates’ story as an example of UNC suppressing the memory of civil rights movements.
“One of these acts of violence has been the University taking every measure to conceal the history of revolt against white supremacy in this town and on this campus,” Little said. “At UNC, you find no monuments to James Lewis Cates. None to his friends who protested against the double-murder by a motorcycle gang and later by this county’s court system. There are no monuments to the countless acts of resistance against UNC’s racism and against Silent Sam.”
According to a 1971 article from The New York Times, Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee acknowledged “young blacks who were itching to get back at the establishment” following Cates’ murder. One of the sources of outrage was campus police’s response after he was stabbed.
The Times article stated there were “widespread reports that Mr. Cates might have lived had the ambulance service been faster or had campus police men allowed friends to remove him to the hospital.”
Nate Davis, Cates’ cousin who witnessed the incident, said in a 2001 interview that he thought police “were more concerned about getting the motorcycle gang members away” than getting Cates medical attention.
When the three white supremacists went to trial, community members raised funds to hire an outside attorney so the men could be properly prosecuted. They hired Adam Stein, a premier civil rights attorney at the time. Stein told the DTH he remembers confusion being key to the gang members’ case.
“It was pretty clear to me that those three people who were charged were involved with the murder,” Stein said. “I think it was not very clear, not certainly clear, who did the stabbing. And the defense lawyers worked very hard to keep that issue confused so that each of them had a reasonable doubt defense.”
Eventually, community funds ran out, and Stein stopped working the case. Following that, the jury was not convinced any of the three individuals were definitely guilty.
“There was a general community feeling among the people who really cared about the issue that race was an important reason for the acquittals,” Stein said.
Stein said he sees parallels between the activism that happened after Cates’ murder and the activism against Silent Sam today.
Chancellor Folt and the UNC system have been publicly critical of the toppling of Silent Sam this week. Little said that criticism is an attempt to discredit the broader issues activists have been discussing, such as the legacy of Cates.
“It wasn’t just about knocking down the statue that they needed to undermine,” Little said. “They needed to undermine the fact that we were saying that Carolina is racist — that UNC is a white supremacist institution. They needed to undermine those things as well.”