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Thursday January 20th

Community comes together to remember the often-forgotten murder of James Cates

Minister Robert Campbell speaks with Journalist Mike Ogle and shares stories of growing up in a segregated Chapel Hill with his childhood friend, James Cates. The Center for the Study of the American South held a panel honoring Cates's life and untimely murder in Hyde Hall on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019.
Buy Photos Minister Robert Campbell speaks with Journalist Mike Ogle and shares stories of growing up in a segregated Chapel Hill with his childhood friend, James Cates. The Center for the Study of the American South held a panel honoring Cates's life and untimely murder in Hyde Hall on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019.

Almost 49 years after his death, members of the Chapel Hill community remember James Lewis Cates, a Black man who was murdered in 1970 by a member of a white supremacist biker gang. Though witnesses and researchers say it was clear who was responsible for Cates' death, an all-white jury held nobody accountable.

On Thursday, the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition and The Center for the Study of the American South co-hosted a public event on UNC’s campus to reflect upon the atrocity of his death.

James Williams, co-chairperson of the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition, said the coalition was formed in 2018 to educate the public on the history of racial injustice within the community.

“I think it’s clear that that legacy related to racial terror and lynching continues to warp and shape systems today, particularly our criminal justice system,” Williams said at the event. “And the underlying structure and justification for racial terror and lynching was this narrative of racial difference.”

Mike Ogle, a UNC alumnus and journalist who spent two years researching the murder of James Cates, told the story of his death.

He said the night he was killed, Cates was attending an all-night dance marathon hosted by an African American student group and the Student Union. At about 2 a.m., a fight broke out between a group of students attending the dance and the Storm Troopers — a white supremacist biker gang that arrived uninvited.

Ogle said large, scattered fights took place around the Pit. In the midst of the chaos, Cates was stabbed twice. He fell to the bricks, bleeding profusely. The police allowed the Storm Troopers to leave, failing to take Cates to the hospital in a timely manner.

“Police let James Cates die — there’s really no way around it,” Ogle said.

In stark contrast, Ogle said, a white female summer school student was murdered five years earlier in the campus arboretum by a suspected Black male. Following the murder, the FBI was called in — bringing in a blood hound and collecting evidence from the crime scene. When no murder weapon was found, the police had hundreds of UNC students comb the arboretum.

“It’s a phenomenon that continues today," Ogle said. "We make choices about whom to notice, whom to remember and whom to forget. Mr. Cates’ murder amounted to a lynching after the fact.”

The case of Cates’ murder was tried by an all-white jury that found none of the bikers guilty. After the trial had passed, the story of Cates and his death was quickly erased from the memory of the white community, Ogle said. 

“As I began asking around, I quickly found that while people from the Black community knew well of the murder — among people from the white people here — nearly no one did,” Ogle said. “Often white people I talked to would respond, ‘I’ve never heard of that murder, but do you know about the one in the arboretum?’”

Minister Robert Campbell, a longtime Chapel Hill resident and former president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, is one individual who has not forgotten Cates.

“James was not just only my neighbor," Cambell said. "He was one of my best friends."

He said talking about Cates’ death is still painful for his family and the community. But he said having conversations like these with community members are important.

“We as a people have to come together," Campbell said. "And we have to scope this thing out and begin a true and firm dialogue about the changes that need to take place."

university@dailytarheel.com

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