Content warning: This article contains mention of racially-motivated violence.
Bouquets of roses and sunflowers lay on the bricks in front of the permanent memorial for James Lewis Cates Jr. On a cold November afternoon, a crowd gathered around a temporary stage.
“Our community dedicates the memorial in honor of James Cates,” the memorial plaque reads, “whose life has not been and will not be forgotten.”
Cates, 22, was a Chapel Hill resident murdered outside the Student Union in November 1970 by members of a white supremacist motorcycle gang. He was denied life-saving medical treatment by police and University officials quickly washed Cates’ blood from the scene.
His murderers were let go by police at the scene and never convicted.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the circumstances of Cates' death through the Cold Case Initiative under the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
The memorial — the result of years of student and local advocacy — was officially unveiled in the Pit on Monday. Students, professors and Chapel Hill residents came together to recognize the memorial and listen to remarks by campus and community leaders.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Student Body President Taliajah “Teddy” Vann, Black Student Movement President Julia Clark, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion Leah Cox, UNC Board of Trustees Chairperson David Boliek and Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger spoke at the event.
Pastor Nate Davis of Now Church gave the event’s invocation and Congresswoman-elect and Cates’ family member Valerie Foushee provided remarks on behalf of the family.
'Not a celebration, but a commemoration'
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Foushee said she is grateful for the efforts of Black mothers, Black Student Movement members, The James Cates Remembrance Coalition, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and all who have annually commemorated Cates’ life with memorials, vigils and op-eds.
She mentioned the generations of family and community members who never forgot Cates’ smile, wit, sense of humor and style. Foushee said the event was not a celebration, it was a commemoration.
“For our community on that night, 52 years ago, this place that is known as the southern part of heaven felt like the northern part of hell,” she said.
Affectionately called “baby boy” by his loved ones, Vann said Cates was the kind of friend and brother others wanted to embody, the type of man people would have been delighted to meet.
“In a perfect world, we would see his dreams fully realized today and would have him here as an elder to share the beauty of his life on his own,” Vann said. “And to pour his wisdom into Black students at UNC, like members of the Northside have done for decades.”
Vann said it has been the honor of her life to be a single part of the effort to memorialize Cates’ life. Cates will always be cherished in the hearts of community members, she said.
Clark, who is the founder and chairperson of The James Lewis Cates Jr. Memorial Project under the Carolina Union Board of Directors, said the journey toward the memorial has been met with delays, bureaucratic red tape and fierce opposition. But she said no opponent is stronger than everlasting love — a love that has sustained the movement toward Cates’ memorial for over five decades.
“Grief, anger and love can often feel separate,” Clark said. “But they are extensions of one another. Grief is love lost, and anger is love disrespected.”
'It's just very important to be here'
The dedication was attended by students and community members who hoped to honor Cates' life and support his family.
"I came out today because, as a Black student, it's very important — especially in this day and time — that we recognize the injustices that are still happening today and the ones that have happened," UNC sophomore Brooke Lucas said.
She felt it was important to support and be with the family and loved ones of Cates, who passed not so long ago.
"It's just very important to be here because he never got the justice that he deserves," Lucas said.
UNC sophomore Autumn Lynch-Coleman said she walks past the Pit every day. Until now, she said, there was nothing permanent to remember Cates by — his story was largely passed by word-of-mouth.
The site of Cates' death must be acknowledged, she said, and that people know the injustice occurred.
"Being able to have everybody know and understand our history, and be able to reconcile with that — even if it is bad — and being able to move past it, and move past it together, is really good," she said.
'Only by reckoning can we reconcile'
Cox said the dedication was an acknowledgment of a scarred part of University history. The goal of educators, she said, is to cherish the lives and minds of students, teaching them to engage in the world without hate, malice or prejudice.
"So thank you to all of you — all of our students, all of our educators, all of our administrators, all of our community workers — who didn't give up and did something, and did the right thing."
Guskiewicz said the University community must work together to shape the future.
“We have more steps to take in our process of teaching our history and on our journey to be a more inclusive and welcoming campus community for everyone,” he said. “We are not done and we will continue this work despite the challenges before us.”
Efforts by The James Cates Remembrance Coalition to rename the UNC Student Stores after Cates are ongoing.
Foushee said the community is grateful for the memorial's commemoration. The University community should learn from its history, she said, not ignore it, cover it up or attempt to wash it away.
"We must acknowledge only by adequately acknowledging our history can we begin to reckon with it, and only by reckoning can we reconcile," Foushee said. "And with that reconciliation, we should vow to do better. Because we now know better and indeed we can be better."
To the sound of the Voices of Praise Gospel Choir, community leaders and loved ones ended the dedication by laying a flower at the base of Cates’ memorial.
And, from dusk to dawn, the Pit was lit up in his memory.
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