The University United Methodist Church rang 22 bells on Nov. 21, the 50th anniversary of James Lewis Cates’ murder, as Chapel Hill community members stood in silence at the Peace and Justice Plaza.
Cates, a Black man and resident of the Northside neighborhood in Chapel Hill, was 22 when he was stabbed outside the Carolina Union by members of a white supremacist biker gang. In the aftermath of Cates’ death in 1970, the Northside community marched through Chapel Hill in protest. During the murder trial in 1971, members of the white supremacist group, the Storm Troopers, were found not guilty.
On Nov. 20, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced the launch of a year-long study of James Cates’ murder by a committee of researchers, members of the Cates family and officials from the Town of Chapel Hill.
Community members gathered last Saturday in remembrance of Cates, marching from the Hargraves Community Center to the Peace and Justice Plaza, where a memorial had been set up for the day. The march was organized by a collective of Cates’ family, community members and representatives from UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill.
According to research published by journalist Mike Ogle, Cates grew up playing baseball outside Hargraves Community Center. Minister Robert Campbell, a longtime Chapel Hill resident and friend of Cates, began the march with a prayer at the center.
“Let it bring forth closure, even though Baby Boy is gone, that we remember his compassion, we remember his love, we remember the laughter and the joy that we used to share together,” Campbell said.
Cates was killed outside the Union on Nov. 21, 1970, while an all-night dance intended to improve race relations was happening inside.
From the community center, the Saturday march stopped at St. Joseph Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, where Cates’ funeral service was held 50 years ago. During his prayer, Rev. John Cradle reminded the community that racial violence has continued since Cates’ murder.
“From Emmett Till to Breonna Taylor to our boy George, and now James Lewis Cates, the saga continues as if Black lives have no meaning, Black lives have no purpose,” Cradle said.
Black activists and community members have been advocating for the full truth of Cates’ murder to be investigated for years. In February 2019, the University removed a plaque honoring James Cates that activists had placed in the Pit less than 24 hours prior.
The last line of the plaque read: “We fight in his name.”
Chapel Hill native Danita Mason-Hogans, daughter of Chapel Hill Nine member David Mason, Jr. and Critical Oral Histories Project Manager at Duke University, is a local historian who will be researching James Cates’ murder in the coming year. She will work with Cates’ family, community scholars and Black students and activists at UNC, in addition to researchers from the University and officials from the Town.
“When the University told the story of James Cates, it was told from the perspective of people who did not have connections with the local community,” Mason-Hogans said. “So there’s so much of that story that has not been told.”
According to Ogle’s research, UNC police failed to take Cates to the hospital on time. It was just a few minutes away.
A 1971 New York Times article stated that 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.” The University conducted interviews to create a report, which contained falsified information from the night of Cates’ murder.
The committee researching Cates’ murder was formed as part of the University’s “Build our Community Together” strategic initiative. The initiative is the first of those included in Carolina Next, a plan for University operations that includes eight specific initiatives to "create change at Carolina for the greater good."
UNC professor Malinda Maynor Lowery, director of the Center for the Study of the American South and member of the committee, attended the march on Saturday.
“To memorialize Mr. Cates is a way of bringing citizens, students, faculty, people who have different roles in this community, together to reckon with not just what happened to him but with the ways in which the institutions have harmed citizens of the Town without repercussion,” Lowery said.
From St. Joseph Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the group marched down Franklin Street carrying candles and shouting Cates’ name, until they reached the Peace and Justice Plaza.
There, Mason-Hogans and others shared parting thoughts. Nate Davis, a first cousin of Cates, said the focus would not be on what happened in 1970, but rather on the work that will happen moving forward.
“It’s been 50 years,” Davis said. “Fifty years, that’s how long it’s been.”
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