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Over 50 years later, federal government opens investigation on James Cates' murder

Rally in the Pit 10/25

DTH File. Students mourn around a memorial for James Cates in 2018 at the site where he was killed in 1970.

Content warning: This article contains mention of racially-motivated violence.




The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation Wednesday morning into the 1970 murder of James Lewis Cates Jr.

This comes more than 50 years after Cates, a 22-year-old Black man, was stabbed to death in the Pit by members of a white supremacist biker gang. He was denied life-saving medical treatment by police, according to the James Cates Remembrance Coalition.

During the murder trial in 1971, members of the white supremacist group, the Storm Troopers, were found not guilty.

Cates' case is one of the latest cases opened through the Cold Case Initiative under the Emmett Till Act. The Cold Case Initiative is an effort to investigate decades-old racially-motivated murders.

"We do not know where this process will lead, but we are glad that it is taking place, even if all these decades later," a Cates' family, represented by Cates' cousins Nate Davis and N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee, said in a statement.

The family also said in the statement that community members had asked the DOJ to investigate in 1970 — and they never heard back until January of this year.

For years, Black activists and community members in Chapel Hill have advocated for a full investigation of Cates' murder — and for him to be honored on UNC's campus.

The University launched 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 in November 2020.

In June 2021, The James Cates Remembrance Coalition, a group of Cates' family members, community leaders, students and other members, sent a proposal to rename the Student Stores building after Cates. As of the fall semester, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has sent the proposal to the UNC Board of Trustees.

"Having the Student Stores building named for James Cates would keep his legacy alive and help move the University away from an era of denial of the persistence of white supremacy and into a future of necessary acknowledgment and reckoning, which can lead to reconciliation," the proposal said.

In addition to renaming the Student Stores building, there have been efforts from community members to create a permanent memorial for Cates on campus.

Last April, the James Lewis Cates Jr. Memorial Committee of the Carolina Union Board of Directors sent a memorial proposal to the Chancellor's Naming Committee.

To date, there have been 161 cases opened —  132 of them having since closed — under the Emmett Till Act, which now includes Cates.

"'Baby Boy,' as we call him, can never be brought back, but perhaps there might finally be some accountability," the family's statement said. "And we know he will not be forgotten again."


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