More than 50 years later, the US Department of Justice is opening a cold case investigation into the murder of James Lewis Cates Jr., a Black Chapel Hill resident who was stabbed to death by white supremacists outside UNC’s student union in 1970.

“We do not know where this process will lead, but we are glad that it is taking place, even if all these decades later,” Nate Davis and Senator Valerie P. Foushee, cousins of Cates, said in a written statement.

The case was opened under the DOJ’s Cold Case Initiative, an effort to identify and investigate racist murders in the years before 1980, pursuant to the 2008 Emmett Till Act. The DOJ has partnered with groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and National Urban League to investigate these cases, of which more than 160 cases have been investigated to date.

According to the DOJ’s website, there are currently 29 open cases being investigated under the Till Act, including Cates’ case.

In November of 1970, Cates was murdered by members of a Durham-based white-supremacist motorcycle gang called the Storm Troopers during a fight outside of a dance held at UNC’s student union. The dance itself was an all-night marathon hosted by the Committee for Afro-American Studies and the Carolina Union. During the fight, Cates was stabbed in the chest and began bleeding out. Research of the event has found that members of both UNCPD and Chapel Hill Police were present or arrived soon after Cates’ stabbing, but failed to provide life-saving medical attention, leading to his death.

At the time, the men connected to Cates’ murder were charged but not convicted.

In the decades since, Cates’ murder has often been referenced in conversations about the tensions between Black students and the university, especially with the university and local police. Last year, Foushee and Davis published an essay in the Assembly, “Say His Name, commemorating Cates.

“If he died today in the manner he did in 1970, you’d be hearing ‘James Cates’ on national television, with hashtags on social media and protests in the street. But we lost James Cates well before it became common for Black victims’ names to echo in the broader public’s consciousness,” the essay reads. “We have not forgotten though.”

In 2020, members of UNC’s Black Student Movement formed the James Lewis Cates Memorial Committee, which focused on preserving and honoring the memory of Cates, among other ways, through proposing a permanent memorial in UNC’s “Pit” area near where Cates was murdered. Thus far, this proposal has not been honored by the university.

The James Cates Remembrance Coalition, a community-wide coalition consisting of many of Cates’ family members, has also proposed that UNC’s Student Stores building, neighboring the student union, be renamed after Cates. Since removing the name of white supremacist Josephus Daniels from Student Stores in July of 2020, it has since not been renamed.

Foushee says she and members of the community have been waiting for 50 years for an investigation like this to occur.

“Now with the Emmett Till Act, there is the ability to have that done,” Foushee said.

“We would like to express our deep gratitude to our community, especially those who loved him and have kept his memory alive, and extend our heartfelt thanks to so many who have refused to let the name James Cates fade again,” the family’s statement continued. “Thank you to so many students on campus, both in the 1970s and in recent years, who have advocated to remember James Cates, and to the members of the James Cates Remembrance Coalition, whose work to preserve the history surrounding our tragic loss continues.”

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