The local legacy of James Cates

This event will discuss the history of Chapel Hill's own 1970 lynching of African American James Cates (the cousin of my friend Nate Davis). He was murdered in public on campus by a white biker gang called the "Storm Troopers." No-one was convicted.

Blood Done Sign OUR Names
The Lessons of Censored History For Our Struggles Today
Monday, September 12, 2005
7:00 pm, Murphey 116
Panel Discussion

  • Matt Robinson---local historian and writer
    ...history of the James Cates murder on the UNC campus in 1970
  • Nate Davis---Chapel Hill native, NAACP 2nd Vice President
    ...witness to his cousin's racial murder in the Pit and the black uprising
  • Tim Tyson---author of UNC's summer reading
    ...the murders of Henry Marrow and Cates in historical perspective
  • Barbara Prear---former UNC Housekeeper, leader of UE Local 150
    ...the struggle of UNC's campus workers to be treated as human beings
  • Donelle Boose---UNC senior, Campaign for Historical Accuracy and Truth
    ...the movement for an honest telling of UNC's history

Sponsored by: Campaign for Historical Accuracy and Truth (CHAT), CampusY, Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, Student Action with Workers (SAW), UNC NAACP, United Electrical Workers Local 150 (UE 150), Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), UNC-Chapel Hill Feminist Students United (fsu)

Download the flyer (PDF) for this event.




Damn! I didn't read about this until too late. I would have loved to attend.

Does anybody know the date of the murder? I'd like to learn more about the story.

Ya, you got me too Ruby... that sound very interesting. I sure would like to know about that story. Anywhere we can read up on it?

Cates was killed in the pit (near the student union) on UNC's campus on November 21, 1970 (I think). The DTH wrote about the trial on 3/26/1971. The defense (3 "storm troopers") didn't bother calling any witnesses, and were all acquitted.

Matt Robinson wrote his masters thesis at Duke about this story. Matt lives in Carrboro. I'll ask him to post here about how you can learn more.

James Lewis Cates, Jr., was born in 1948 in Chapel Hill. A life-long resident of the town, he was born into the predominantly African-American Northside community, and he bore witness to the monumental changes of the 1960s. He participated in civil rights sit-ins, was arrested along with hundreds of his peers, and was a member of the very first fully integrated graduating class of Chapel Hill High School in 1967.

James Cates died on November 21, 1970, fatally stabbed in the course of a knife-fight that occured just outside the doors of the snack bar at the UNC Union. He bled to death lying on the bricks of the Pit. His killers were members of a Durham-based motorcycle gang, known as the Stormtroopers. They were notorious figures in the area, unmistakable on their Harley Davidson bikes and decked out in Nazi paraphernalia.

Cates and his friends had gone to campus for an all-night dance to mark homecoming weekend. He was not a student at UNC, nor were any of the Stormtroopers. The dance was meant to be an interracial gathering in the wake of long-simmering community racial tensions, organized as a gesture of racial solidarity. However, over the course of the evening, the local black youths and the white Stormtroopers clashed several times. At around 2:00 am, in the last, fatal melee, Cates was stabbed twice by two Stormtroopers after he pulled a straight razor on one of them in the midst of a fistfight.

Although Memorial Hospital is less than a mile away from the scene of the stabbing, Cates was made to lie in the Pit for almost 20 minutes that cold night, bleeding uncontrollably from a sliced femoral artery. Police prevented anyone from taking him to the hospital, instead forcing Cates to wait for an ambulance that, for all practical purposes, never came.

Taken to the hospital in the back of a police cruiser, Cates was pronounced dead at 3:30 am that Saturday morning.

His killers were caught the next day (having been allowed by campus security to leave the scene of the stabbing) and stood trial the following March. The prosecution was so poorly handled that the defense for the three bikers didn't even present a case; instead the attorneys for the Stormtroopers simply hammered each of the prosecution's witnesses until the jury believed there to be "reasonable doubt" as to the identity of the killers. On March 25, 1971, an all-white jury in Hillsborough found the Stormtroopers not guilty of any wrongdoing in the Cates killing.

That night, enraged young blacks, friends of Cates, firebombed two buildings in town, the Institute of Pharmacy on the corner of Church and Rosemary Streets, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools Administration building, on School Lane. The Institute was slightly damaged, but the Northside building sustained major damage later assessed at over $160,000. No one was arrested in the initial arsons.

Two and a half weeks later, three more buildings were firebombed, by some of the same young people. This time, though, law enforcement arrested 17 people, all young blacks and most from Cates' neighborhood. Four of these young men would ultimately go to prison for their alleged involvement in the burnings.

That's the basics of the story. I would be happy to give more specific information here on this site, should it be desired. I also have copies of my thesis available, feel free to contact me at, or call 932-6493.

PS, this November will mark the 35th anniversary of Cates' death. Since the event has been all but forgotten on campus, I am hoping to re-acquaint the UNC community with this tragic story. Any assistance in this endeavor would be greatly appreciated.

Has anything in our town been named in honour of Mr. Cates? Just curious as I this the first I've read of this information.


That's really fascinating. I'm pretty (overly) committed right now, but I'd like to try and assist you in some way with the anniversary.

My computer has been down for the past week, so I missed the beginning of this one.

Does it matter to any of you (especially Matt Robinson, who should know better) that, after almost a week of trial, 12 Orange County citizens were not persuaded that "James Cates was stabbed twice by two Storm Troopers"? Or have we, as a society, now arrived at the point where we can each simply choose which verdicts we like and which ones we don't? So that all of you so ready to report the murder was committed by some Storm Troopers will continue to insist OJ didn't do it because the jury said so? I guess he was right who said, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds."


P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, I had a dog in that fight.

In response to Mr. Winston's posting, Ithink it is worth remembering that 12 Orange County citizens found three members of the Storm Trooper bike gang not guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter in the death of James Cates. But, as Mr. Winston pointed out to me in an interview several years ago regarding the Cates murder trial, our justice system's courts are courts of laws, not of facts.

The jury found the bikers not guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter based on the prosecution's case; the jury did not determine reality simply because they made a legal ruling. The facts remained the same: Cates and a Storm Trooper got into an altercation, Cates pulled a straight razor, the Storm Troopers surrounded him, he was stabbed twice by one or two Storm Troopers, they left and he died. I admit that my original posting on this blog site was not scrupulously meticulous, as I claimed that the man was stabbed twice by two Storm Troopers. He might have been stabbed twice by one.

And yes, I do know he was stabbed by at least one Storm Trooper that night. I know this because the former Storm Trooper himself admitted it to me.

As for the jury, a panel of 12 whites exonerated the killers, due perhaps as much to the botched prosecution as to the presumable claims of Mr. Winston and his colleagues, who defended the bikers, that the act was in self-defense.

Barry just alerted me to this thread involving a case that I remember well.

My firm was hired by members of the African American community to serve as private prosecution in the case, a role I had through the preliminary hearing. I was then living in Charlotte practicing with Julius Chambers and James Ferguson (the firm was then Chambers, Stein, Ferguson & Lanning; we are now together again as Ferguson Stein Chambers.) In those days, we were often hired to serve as private prosecutor when the victim was black, the
defendant was white, and the family or the community did not trust the district attorney to prosecute the case vigorously. (Jim Ferguson was a private prosecutor in the case told in Blood Done Sign My Name.)

There were three Storm Trooper defendants. One was represented by Barry Winston, another by Jim Maxwell (who recently represented David Hoke and Deborah Graves before the State Bar, the prosecutors in the Alan Gell case) and the third by Mike Levine who passed away this summer.

It was clear to me at the preliminary hearing and in
interviewing witnesses that it would be very hard to get a conviction. There seemed little or no doubt that James Cates was killed by one or more of the Storm Toopers. But it was not clear at all which Storm Trooper(s) did the stabbing. It happened at 3 in the morning. It was dark. People had been drinking. The combatants were running around fighting or challengin each other, as were the potential witnesses. Eye witness accounts conflicted as to who was where and did what when.

I was not there for the trial, my employment in the case having been over, but was not at all suprised by the verdict. Each defendant, represented by a skillful lawyer, had a strong argument that the state had not proved the
case against him beyond a reasonable doubt. It would have taken a masterful prosecution to obtain a conviction or convictions in that case. (In addition to the conflicting evidence on who did it, the prosecution had the burden of
proving that the killer(s) were not acting in self defense since there was evidence that James Cates had pulled a razor on his eventual attackers before he was stabbed.
Moreover, the race of the victim would have worked very strongly against the prosecution in 1970, even in Orange County. In fact in those days, an Orange County jury was almost always made up of rural whites. Very few African Americans (and any Chapel Hill residents) were even on the jury lists.) At that time our prosecutorial district included Alamance County and the District Attorney was from Alamance. The outcome of that case was one of the reasons why many in Chapel Hill wanted to succede from Alamamce, something that Joe Hackney eventually caused to happen.

I did not participate in the prosecution of the case at trial, but after I moved to Chapel Hill in the summer of 1971, I did end up representing almost all of those charged with arson for the fires set in reaction to the verdict.

I would like to help in any way possible, being from Maine
I'm not sure what I can do, however please let me know if
I can do anything Thank you. Jim Cates


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