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UNC community honors memory of James Cates on the anniversary of his death

Rally in the Pit 10/25
DTH File. People place flowers in the Pit in 2018 at the site where James Cates was killed in 1970.

The James Cates Remembrance Coalition collaborated with the Chapel Hill Public Library and the UNC Center for the Study of the American South to host a remembrance webinar in honor of James Lewis Cates Jr. on Thursday.

On the night of Nov. 21, 1970, Cates, a 22-year-old Black man, was stabbed to death in the Pit by members of a white supremacist biker gang. 

The Chapel Hill community remembers the 51st anniversary of his murder this week. Cates, who was born and raised in Chapel Hill, would have celebrated his 73rd birthday this year.

The James Cates Remembrance Coalition is a collective that includes members of Cates’ family, community leaders, scholars, activists and students. The Nov. 18 webinar featured speakers from the community that were friends, family or advocates for Cates to share his story and discuss ongoing efforts to memorialize him.

Remembering Cates

Robert Campbell, a local minister and a longtime Chapel Hill resident who grew up in the Northside community, remembers the night he last saw his childhood friend and neighbor

“He said he was going to go down on campus, and I was afraid he was going to get too cold because already the temperature was dropping,” Campbell said. “So I gave him my peacoat and said, ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ The next thing I knew...they woke me up and told me that James had passed away.”

Attendees at the event said that to know Cates was to love him. 

"James was more than just a neighbor, he was a best friend,” Campbell said. “He was a visionary and I just try to imagine, what would he have accomplished if he was still alive today?”

Continued fight for justice

Burnice Hackney, one of Cates’ classmates, said he graduated with Cates from Chapel Hill High School in 1967, the first integrated class to graduate from the school. 

Hackney said he was not surprised to hear the “not guilty” verdict for the members of the white supremacist biker gang in 1971 — the year after Cates’ murder. 

“Our experiences of people of color, however, has taught us that American jurisprudence does not always equate to justice,” Hackney said. “One of the bedrock principles of our legal system is ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’ as it was in James Cates’ case and the proverbial clock is still ticking. But there will be justice, there will be adjudication, there will be accountability and there will be compensation.”

Carolyn Daniels, a former teacher and guidance counselor who worked in ministry, was also a classmate of James Cates. 

She said that James Cates is the Emmett Till of Chapel Hill. Till was a Black 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi 15 years before the murder of James Cates. Till's brutal murder and the subsequent "not guilty" verdict issued by an all-white jury brought national attention to racial violence and injustice in the state.

“Our faith guides and inspires the deep work of social justice,” Daniels said, before referring to a passage from Howard Thurman's "Jesus and the Disinherited."

“Even though we 'stand with our backs against a wall,"' Daniels read. "We have no excuse to back away from the demands of a life of integrity, a life that refuses to give into fear, hypocrisy and hatred.”

Looking forward

The James Cates Remembrance Coalition and student groups on campus such as the Black Student Movement hope to create a permanent memorial for James Cates at UNC.

The coalition also sent a proposal to University officials to rename the Student Stores after Cates in June. The proposal was sent to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin and the members of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Naming University Facilities and Units. It was endorsed by local organizations, groups and individuals. As of October, the chancellor has forwarded a recommendation to the Board of Trustees leadership.

At the end of the remembrance event, a video clip played with pictures of Cates’ life, and featured a clip of Minister Campbell speaking in Cates’ honor.

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“I will keep you in my heart. I will work for change,” Campbell said. “Rest my friend, rest my friend, be not forgotten. James, James, James.”

@neptunejade |