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Editorial: 51 years after the murder of James Cates Jr., we are still complicit

Rally in the Pit 10/25
Community members place flowers in 2018 at the site where James Cates was killed in 1970.

Fifty-one years ago today, James Cates Jr. attended an all-night dance in the Student Union. He had been asked to go to by the event organizers, the Committee for Afro-American Studies and the Carolina Union.

The students had promoted the event as an intentionally interracial affair. They wanted Black students, like Cates, at the event — despite UNC's undergraduate population at the time being just two percent Black.

At around 2 a.m., a white supremacist motorcycle gang, the Storm Troopers, incited a fight with Cates and the other Black attendees. Cates was stabbed twice and left bleeding on the bricks in the Pit. 

The call for an ambulance was taking too long. Black community members tried to take Cates to the hospitals themselves, but police stopped them. Between 14 and 45 minutes later, according to research, police eventually took Cates to the hospital — but it was too late.

An all-white jury determined Ronnie Broadwell, who was on trial for Cates’ murder, and all members of the Storm Troopers were not guilty.  

The story of Cates is more than a hate crime. It is about the complicity of so many local institutions based in white supremacy — institutions whose difficult history we still have not reconciled today.

N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Chatham, Orange, is a first cousin of Cates. She said the lessons of his tragedy are exemplary of the way racial inequities permeate our system at all levels.

“Until we address how race impacts our legal system, economic system, education system, we are not going to make the improvements we need to make,” Foushee said. “If there is any lesson to be learned, it’s that we have to acknowledge the implications of race in our systems.”

Foushee said the death of her cousin extends beyond his life alone, because we are still operating within the system that forced Cates to die unnecessarily. She said she believes we have not done enough to reconcile with his death.

“If we had done enough, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Foushee said. “We wouldn't be experiencing the same things as a society with Black men killed in the streets.”

UNC, the Town of Chapel Hill, the medical system and police are all culpable in the murder of James Cates Jr. The lesson, however, is not only the violence itself, but also what happened after. 

The fact that police watched him bleed out, that the University washed away his blood from the Pit bricks the next day because of a home football game, that the court acquitted blatant racially motivated violence and most of all, that the white public let his memory fade from consciousness for years after the fact. 

Foushee said the first step toward acknowledging the harm is making sure we learn the history and ensure we never forget the name James Cates Jr.

“When you educate people about the history, it can no longer be ignored,” Foushee said. “Only then can you start to put in place ways to bring about change.”

When we sweep such injustices under the rug, we are not forced to reconcile with the past.  

The institutions that allowed this atrocity to occur all remain in place today, and while there have been some strides to address racial inequality since 1970, they still actively cause harm to Chapel Hill's Black community. These are systemic issues that persist, and we need the people in power to acknowledge their wrongdoing.

Danita Mason-Hogans is a member of the James Cates Remembrance Coalition and has worked to compile a critical oral history of Cates’ life and legacy. She said the story of Cates is a story of the erasure of Black people from the Chapel Hill community.

“This is about the power to control a narrative,” Mason-Hogans said. “Because campus memory can be so transient and short, people forgot about Mr. Cates, but the Black community here never forgets him.”

It is not enough for the University to put out a statement of support without tangible action to repair its broken relationship with the Cates family. It is not enough to establish a James Cates Remembrance Coalition, but then not act on their recommendations. 

“At what cost was Mr. Cates' life undervalued?” Mason-Hogans said. “We need to move the people to tell the truth of the power structures at play here. Otherwise, we see the unfortunate perfect example of how Black lives did not matter in Chapel Hill.”

One small step the University can take to begin acknowledging this past, both Foushee and Mason-Hogans said, is to memorialize Cates on campus. The James Cates Remembrance Coalition made a recommendation to the University over the summer to change the name of the Student Stores Building, which sits adjacent to the location of the tragic murder, in honor of Cates.

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“Before there can be reconciliation, we have to examine the truth,” Mason-Hogans said. “We have to acknowledge that truth, and we have to acknowledge the harm that has been done to this community.”

We cannot allow the legacy of Cates to fade away. So, as we work toward a more just system, let the life of James Cates Jr. be the driving force behind institutional change in our community.