USA TODAY International Edition
‘ I’M AT PEACE WITH WHAT I DID’
He wanted to escape racism. In 1972, he hijacked a plane
CAEN, France – The hijackers played music – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops – thinking it would keep the 86 passengers of Delta Airlines Flight 841 calm.
“We just didn’t want anyone to panic or get hurt,” says Melvin McNair.
Next year marks 50 years since McNair, 72, hijacked a plane with his wife and three other Black Americans. On July 31, 1972, they forced the Delta airliner, bound for Miami from Detroit, to divert to Algeria after demanding $ 1 million from the U. S. government. They wanted to connect with Eldridge Cleaver and other members of the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary- minded and controversial political organization that had established an international chapter in Algeria’s capital, Algiers.
The United States, the hijackers concluded, was not always what it said it was – or what it wanted to be.
McNair and his associates saw the hijacking as a surefire way to escape racial violence, police brutality and government repression. But they found that the Black Panthers, and life on the run, was not what they wanted it to be, either.
McNair’s radical decision cost him his life in the United States. For the first time, he is telling his story to a U. S. media outlet.
“Maybe it was a miscalculation,” McNair says when USA TODAY spoke with him in July in Caen, the small city in Normandy, France, that has been his home for nearly half a century.
“But I’m at peace with what I did.”
‘ We felt we were facing death’
McNair was 24 when he helped hijack Delta Airlines Flight 841.
The racism he encountered as a Black man growing up in 1950s Greensboro, North Carolina, and later in the U. S. military, was similar to
that faced by others from his generation: including segregation, slurs and limited opportunities.
There is no single moment, as McNair tells it, that prompted his act of desperation.
“But I can’t deny our backs were against the wall. We felt we were facing death,” he says. “We had to make a decision.”
After nearly four years of prison in France for air piracy, McNair disappeared with his family into French society. He became a government social worker and a mentor to troubled French youth in Caen.
Baseball was the medium McNair used to impart his life lessons: make the most of opportunities thrown your way; stay positive in the face of adversity – lessons McNair feels he himself failed to heed as a young man.
“Baseball is like a liberation in itself,” McNair says. “You need logic and strategy and technique. There are many options. You need to pick the right ones. You need to do it quickly. You need to be the master of yourself.”
In Caen, McNair became “Mr. Baseball.” He draws effusive praise from former colleagues, parents of young children and teens he has coached and mentored and just about everyone he encounters – from the area optometrist to a group of landscapers pulling weeds from an underpass. He has played in various French semi- professional leagues and volunteered as a trainer with French national and Olympic youth teams.
But on occasion, he longs for the smell of honeysuckle or to see the peach trees of his native North Carolina, especially when he talks with his sister or cousins by phone, which isn’t often.
“Sometimes when I look back on it now I think, if at some moment in my life I had taken another direction, then maybe things would have worked out differently,” he says.
McNair spends most of his time in a Caen neighborhood called La Grâce de Dieu – which in English translates as “The Grace of God.”
Though McNair retired from social work in 2014, he maintains a busy schedule of meetings with local officials who seek his advice on a broad array of community issues, from how best to make use of a disused plot of land to the appropriate reaction to an increase of kids shooting off dangerous fireworks.
In 2013, the city named a baseball field after him and his late wife, Jean McNair, in recognition of their work with disadvantaged kids.
Terrain de Baseball Melvin et Jean McNair is little more than a strippeddown diamond on the edge of a large multipurpose field, but it signifies McNair’s influence.
“Melvin was like a dad for people like me,” says Mohamed Belaïdi, 52, a former student.
At home in the Army, and then not
McNair was born in 1948. His father left the family when McNair was 4. His mother worked long hours in a tobacco factory and later as a domestic servant for a wealthy white family. A favorite uncle, one of Greensboro’s first Black police officers, took responsibility for raising him.
“I was brought up to defend myself and was planning on being a professional baseball player. I kept getting told that Superman was white. I wasn’t so sure,” McNair recalls.
In 1966 – the same year Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California – a baseball scholarship took McNair to Winston- Salem State University, a historically Black public college.
He soon met Jean Carol Allen, a bookish and reserved woman from WinstonSalem with a strong social conscience. “She was the brains, I was the brawn,” he says. “Before I met Jean I was little more than a jock.”
The young couple started attending the growing number of civil rights marches, protests and demonstrations in and around Winston- Salem.
But McNair found living on campus alienating. He was frustrated by what seemed like pointless and contradictory rules and demands, such as curfews mandated by the terms of his scholarship, from the college’s coaches and athletic staff.
“It was like they were trying to break my spirit,” McNair says.
Before long, McNair lost his scholarship because of various disciplinerelated transgressions. He had a bad attitude and talked back to the coaching staff. He was kicked out of campus housing, and, eventually, he decided to leave college altogether. He was then drafted into the Army.
At Fort Bragg, McNair was singled out for his intelligence and leadership qualities.
Yet time and again, McNair was passed over for promotion in favor of white soldiers who, he says, had done little to prove themselves. The Army identified McNair as a top athlete. When his battalion handed out a sports award, that, too, went to a white man.
“I liked the discipline of the Army. The racism cut my ambitions short,” McNair says.
In 1969, shortly after passing his clerk qualification at a military school in Virginia, he became one of the 25,000 Black American troops stationed in West Germany.
Army life in Germany soured quickly for McNair, even though Jean McNair, now his wife and pregnant, had joined him in Berlin after getting her degree.
One time, during a basketball game he was playing in, the wife of a white soldier shouted from the stands in McNair’s direction.
“Get the n---- off the court!” McNair began resisting the Army in small ways.
He let his afro grow.
He refused to stand for the national anthem.
Instead of saluting, McNair raised a fist, the gesture used by the Black Panthers to signal the civil rights struggle.
Soon, word came that McNair was being sent to Vietnam. McNair was concerned he would be asked to take on a combat role.
At first, McNair sought a legal exit from the Army on the grounds of racism. He enlisted the help of an aunt who worked at the Pentagon and American Civil Liberties Union lawyers.
When that failed, he decided to desert.
The McNairs settled on Detroit because Jean McNair had a friend from college who lived there. The city also had a large Black population, along with a strong base of Black nationalists who advocated for economic self- sufficiency and racial pride.
A desperate escape plan
McNair is reluctant to go into too much detail about how the hijacking plot was hatched.
What’s clear is the hijacking plot was formed in the immediate wake of the shooting in Detroit of a friend of McNair’s named George Brown.
Brown was shot by police as he walked home one evening from a movie. Detroit police said he had a knife and shot him during an assault. Brown’s French widow, Annie, says her husband was shot six times with “dumdum” bullets – designed to expand on impact – and nearly died. A court accepted Brown’s claim he was ambushed by police and threw out the charges.
McNair had been introduced to Brown by another friend, George Wright, who McNair met while they both worked at Gino’s.
The McNairs, Brown, Wright, and Wright’s girlfriend, Joyce Tillerson, comprised the core hijacking gang.
Jean McNair died in 2014. Brown died in 2015. Tillerson died in 2000.
Wright, through his lawyer, declined to be interviewed for this story. He is living in Portugal and is still wanted by the Justice Department.
Not long after they met, all five adults – plus three children – moved into a house near the Detroit River.
The McNairs now had an additional child to Berlin- born Johari, a daughter named Ayana. Tillerson’s daughter Kenya also joined the group at the house.
What the McNairs didn’t know at the time was that Brown had been imprisoned in 1968 for armed robbery. And Wright had been convicted as an accomplice for the 1962 murder of Walter Patterson, a World War II veteran who was shot as Wright and three other people robbed a gas station in Wall Township, New Jersey. In 1970, Brown and Wright had escaped together from Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, by hot- wiring a car that belonged to the jail’s warden.
Still, for McNair and the others, Brown’s Detroit shooting was a highly emblematic close call: A controversial undercover Detroit police program called STRESS ( Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets) was in full swing with a violent repression campaign against Black rights organizations.
“We felt cornered,” McNair says. “We had to do something.”
‘ We’re never coming back.’
William H. May, the pilot of Delta Airlines Flight 841, says he was in the bathroom when the hijacking began. The plane was about an hour from landing.
Wright was disguised as a priest. He hid a gun in a hollowed- out Gideon Bible. Brown impersonated a disheveled college student. McNair pretended to be a businessman.
The McNairs and Tillerson had brought their children along. Johari and Ayana were 2 and 1, respectively. Kenya, Tillerson’s child, was 3. Jean McNair and Tillerson entertained the kids with coloring books and games.
Wright tapped a flight attendant on the shoulder as she passed through the plane. “Excuse me,” Wright said. “Can I ask you something?”
As the attendant leaned down to see what he wanted, Wright showed her the gun hidden in the Bible. “Keep cool,” Wright told her. “Just take us to the cockpit.”
When May left the lavatory, he says, he turned around to find McNair pressing the barrel of a handgun into his belly, a .45- caliber, he believes. May was taken to the cockpit, where he found the flight attendant, a flight engineer and the co- pilot had been taken hostage by Wright. ( McNair says he doesn’t remember pointing a gun at May, but he concedes it’s possible he has forgotten some of the details of how the incident unfolded.)
In the cockpit, Wright held a gun to a flight attendant’s head.
“Everybody up there was white as a sheet,” May recalls.
After some back- and- forth with the hijackers about their demands, and a successful plea to Wright to uncock the gun he was holding to the flight attendant’s head, May sent a coded message through the plane’s communications dashboard.
“Are you squawking 7500?” came the reply from a Miami air traffic controller. It was the code for a hijacking. “Affirmative,” replied May.
But the hijackers had not known that May had never flown overseas. And the plane they had chosen to hijack was a domestic model that lacked the large fuel tanks that were needed for an international flight.
As the plane taxied to an abandoned runway at Miami International Airport, May told Wright: “You know this airplane won’t make it all the way to Algeria. It doesn’t have the fuel range. We’ll go down in the ocean. We’ll all drown. Are you ready for that?”
Wright was ready with an answer. “Yes,” he said. “We’re Black Panthers and we’re going to our homelands.”
The plan all along had been to collect a $ 1 million ransom in Miami, when they would drop off the aircraft’s passengers,
then fly to North Africa.
As the FBI scrambled to come up with the ransom money, the hijackers decided the plane would fly from Miami to Boston to refuel, then make its way to Algeria with an internationally experienced navigator brought aboard. They decided to let the passengers off the plane in Miami.
In Miami and Boston, the hijackers insisted that anyone who approached the plane be dressed in a bathing suit to prevent a concealed weapon.
As the plane took off from Boston, Jean McNair positioned Ayana so she could look out the window: “Look at America for the last time,” she whispered to her baby daughter as the New England landscape receded into the distance. “We’re never coming back,”
Algeria was not the answer
When the plane landed, it was surrounded by the Algerian military. The hijacker’s guns were confiscated, and they were told they were free to go.
By prior arrangement with the FBI, Algeria’s President Houari Boumédiène agreed to return the $ 1 million, possibly in a bid for a restoration of Algeria’s severed diplomatic ties with the United States.
The Black Panthers the hijackers met in Algeria, especially Cleaver, the party’s charismatic though troubled spokesman, were a disappointment.
“The only thing that interested ( Cleaver) was the money,” Brown says in a 2011 documentary, “Nobody Knows My Name.” Brown goes on: “They weren’t dealing with the struggle. They were women- hunting in Algeria. We risked our lives for believing in the cause. When we got there, the cause wasn’t there.”
In all, the hijackers lasted about 18 months in North Africa.
They lived comfortably in government housing. But without a car, it was difficult to get around. They didn’t speak French. They met few Algerians. They were warned by the Algerian secret service to be on the lookout for U. S. spies who might try to harm them.
“We knew we had to leave Algeria,” McNair says. “We also knew we couldn’t move with the kids.”
Tillerson’s uncle flew to Algeria to take Johari, Ayana and Kenya back to the United States.
In 1974, all five hijackers left Algeria for France on forged passports. They calculated that France’s relatively large Black community would afford them a degree of anonymity not possible elsewhere in Europe. Strong links between Algeria and France had also brought the hijackers to the attention of activists and human rights organizations in France willing to help shelter them.
In Paris, McNair found work in a printing shop.
By 1976, all the hijackers – except for Wright – were in a French jail. They were arrested in a coordinated police operation after pressure from the U. S. government.
A debt repaid?
After he was apprehended in 1976 in the printing shop, McNair served under four years in jail. He was let out early for good behavior, which included learning French.
The French government has long refused to extradite McNair, because it did not believe he would get a fair trial. His supporters point out that no one was physically hurt during the hijacking. The ransom money was returned. After he served his sentence, McNair devoted his life to helping others.
And although air piracy is a serious crime and the hijackers threatened to shoot passengers, USA TODAY found no evidence – either in published news reports, passenger testimony or interviews with May, FBI agent William Brown and others – that anyone believes McNair should continue to pay for what he did.
“He’s a very special person who has meant so much to our city. His contributions have been positive in every way,” says Joël Bruneau, who has been Caen’s mayor for the past six years and has known McNair’s community work for several decades.
“There’s no question in my mind Melvin has paid his debt to society,” says David Mann, director of Fort Wayne, Indiana- based World Partners, a faith- based group involved with humanitarian work. Mann has staged a series of baseball clinics with McNair in Caen.
“He obviously did something horrendous with the hijacking, but he has proven himself over and over. What would be gained by putting him in a U. S. prison?” Mann asks, noting that France’s justice system has allowed McNair the opportunity to achieve what many caught up in the U. S. system often don’t get: the ability to rehabilitate himself.
McNair says he doesn’t regret the hijacking. Yet he wouldn’t do it again.
“I’ve learned that if you want to change the system, you have to be part of the system. That’s part of being an effective resistance. It’s no good just attacking it.”