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.
Most never knew that one of the hijackers had held a gun to a flight attendant’s head. Or that they’d threatened to shoot passengers one by one unless their ransom demand was met. Or that if things spiraled out of control the plane might end up out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean and everyone would drown.
“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. After less than two years in Algeria, they moved to France where in 1976 they were arrested, imprisoned and exiled. They ended up on the FBI’s fugitive list. If McNair steps back onto U.S. soil, he faces arrest.
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.”
Melvin McNair deals with the consequences of hijacking a plane to escape racism in America
In 1972, Melvin McNair made a radical decision that cost him his life in the United States. He has never told his story to a US media outlet — until now.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY
McNair was 24 when he helped hijack Delta Airlines Flight 841.
He never formally joined the Black Panthers. He was neither Black nationalist nor separatist. 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.”
La Grâce de Dieu’s state-built rectangular apartment blocks are neat if a little drab. Wide avenues accommodate space for bike paths and a modern-looking tram system. A central square hosts a dozen small shops and a community center.
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. He regularly checks in on former pupils.
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 stripped-down 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.
Hear from the journalists behind this story by clicking ‘play’ below
McNair says the hijacking was the result of an accumulation of experiences with racism that began in earnest for him after he left Greensboro to join the U.S. Army.
Despite growing up in a city intimately connected to the civil rights movement – notably through the 1960 Woolworth lunch counter sit-in – McNair did not feel compelled to participate in protests.
“You’d get hostile insults, stuff like that. However, I was never in a position where I felt physically threatened or abused or something like that,” McNair says.
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 Winston-Salem 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 discipline-related 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.
McNair decided to become an Army clerk, an office logistics job that would mostly keep him away from the front line. 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 turned to his lieutenant, who was also his coach: “You hear this stuff?” The coach said there was nothing he could do about it.
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, Black empowerment and moral conviction.
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.
He told his Army bosses that before deploying to Vietnam he needed extra money to get Jean and the baby settled back in the United States. That bought time and a financial cushion.
The McNairs settled on Detroit because Jean 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.
Jean McNair got a job teaching. McNair trained to be a manager of an Italian fast food restaurant named Gino’s.
Meanwhile, they were drawn to the Black Panthers’ charitable work. In the early 1970s, the group was running health clinics nationwide and feeding thousands of American children every day before they went to school.
Still, the McNairs decided against making contact with the Detroit chapter because they knew the FBI was closely watching anyone affiliated with it.
Since the 1950s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) unit had been surveilling, infiltrating and harming political groups, activists and anyone it deemed subversive in what is now regarded as the darkest period in FBI history. Black Panthers bore the brunt of COINTELPRO operations.
In late 1969, for example, Fred Hampton, a young rising star of the party, had been killed in an FBI-orchestrated police raid as he slept in his Chicago apartment.
In May 1971, 21 members of the Black Panther Party, including two who fled to Algeria, were acquitted of a conspiracy to bomb department stores, police stations, railroads and a large botanical garden in New York City. During the trial, it was revealed FBI infiltrators organized the plot.
“We knew we had to get out of the USA because we knew American police and the FBI were terrorizing Black people like us,” McNair says
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 Brown, 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. After fleeing, the two convicts went underground, eventually surfacing in Detroit.
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. Civil rights leaders, historians and activists say the unit also used unchecked and excessive force against the city’s Black population more generally.
“We felt cornered,” McNair says. “We had to do something.”
The hijackers had spent weeks doing research. First, they identified a plane – a DC-8 – they were confident could be flown nonstop to Algeria.
They established the plane was completely inaccessible from underneath. They did not want the FBI to storm the aircraft via the luggage hold.
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.
Javier Zarracina, USA TODAY
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.
May’s account has been corroborated by McNair; by court testimony from the other hijackers, passengers and flight crew stored in a restricted-access national archive in Paris; by CIA-FBI correspondence; by snippets of eyewitness testimony published in contemporary newspaper stories; by a 2012 interview with Wright by the American writer Michael Finkel; and by FBI agents, including retired agent William Brown, who spoke with Wright from the airport’s communications tower when the plane landed in Miami.
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 exited the lavatory, he says, he turned around to find McNair pressing the barrel of a handgun into his belly, a .45-caliber, he thinks. 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 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.
May says it was Wright who took charge during the hijacking.
“Wright was certainly the most talkative,” says May, who was 41 then. He’s now 90 and, like McNair, is from North Carolina.
“I asked the priest how many gunmen he had. He acted like he was counting and said something like ’13.’ I told him, ‘I don’t believe it.’ Turns out he was lying,” May says.
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.
The hijackers were calm, polite, even courteous, according to May.
“You shouldn’t cry, little girl. It’s not gonna be that bad,” passenger Sam Gardner, a Detroit criminal lawyer, overheard one of the male hijackers say to a young woman who was weeping, according to an account published in the Miami News.
“Nobody really knew what was happening until they walked off the plane. I’m amazed at what a clever plan those cats had,” Gardner added.
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 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. They came up with the idea of demanding $1 million because that was the amount Brown had wanted to sue the city of Detroit for after police shot him.
But May’s inexperience with navigating across an ocean and the miscalculation on the plane forced a change of plan.
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.
Still, the hijackers took no chances.
In Miami and Boston, the hijackers insisted that anyone who approached the plane be dressed in a bathing suit to prevent a concealed weapon.
Archival footage from this time, viewable in a short documentary from 2012 about the McNairs called “Melvin & Jean: An American Story” by Maia Wechsler, shows an FBI agent in Miami in skintight swimming trunks delivering the $1 million in a blue suitcase.
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,” she said, according to French trial testimony housed in an archive in Paris.
The overnight flight from Boston to Algeria passed without incident.
Way out over the Atlantic Ocean, the men slept while the women kept watch.
On the approach to Algiers, May flew low over the city, and he thought to himself that the landscape appeared bleak, impoverished, unwelcoming.
“The hijackers kept telling me they were escaping Detroit’s ghettoes. I told them I didn’t know how bad things were in Detroit, but I’m not sure you’ll like it here either,” May says.
May’s comments turned out to be prescient.
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.
But there was a catch: 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 U.S.
There were other setbacks.
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.”
McNair was more hesitant to directly criticize Cleaver or other Black Panthers in Algeria because he says that “everybody was naive and young and there were all types of manipulations, disinformation and stuff like that going on from the FBI and elsewhere.”
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 had to learn how to be in a hostile environment,” McNair says.
They also had another big decision to make. “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.
After he was apprehended in 1976 in the printing shop, McNair served just under four years in jail. He was let out early for good behavior, which included learning French.
Brown served a similar amount of time.
Jean and Tillerson were freed right after the trial, which took almost two years to come before the court, so they could be reunited with their children.
Wright separated from the group after they arrived in France and refused to tell the others where he was going. In 2011, Wright was discovered living near Lisbon in a beach town. After spending time in Guinea-Bissau on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, Wright had built a secret life for himself as a family man in Portugal under the name “Jorge dos Santos.”
The United States tried to extradite Wright from Portugal to finish the murder sentence he was serving when he escaped from prison in 1970, and to face charges for the hijacking. Portugal ruled he could not be extradited because Wright had become a Portuguese national. Officials there also seemed satisfied he was rehabilitated.
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.
The U.S. Justice Department is neither actively pursuing the case nor willing to abandon it, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official says McNair would be given a fair trial in a Miami court if he chose to return to the U.S.
Susan Tipograph, a retired American criminal defense lawyer who represented dozens of former Black Panthers and political prisoners, says there’s an overdue reckoning with how the U.S. treated scores of young radicals and Black rights activists from this time who, while not entirely guilt-free, deserve fresh appraisal.
Tipograph says there are people in prison or overseas whom the Justice Department “just won’t let go of who are old and infirm and in some cases dying.”
McNair says he doesn’t regret the hijacking. Yet he wouldn’t do it again.
“Sometimes I think it was simply the arrogance of youth,” McNair says. “Anger blinds you.”
He is concerned his life’s work in France will be obscured by his association with Wright, who has more serious charges to face. McNair says he “has a lot of love and respect” for Wright, but it was also a shock to learn of the murder conviction.
McNair worries, too, that were he to return to the United States, he either may not recognize the country he left behind or would struggle to find a role for himself in social justice movements now dominated, he suspects, by brighter, younger, more nimble activists.
“I found a way to be constructive and productive in Caen,” he says. And his links to the area have deepened.
The city plans to name a street after Jean McNair in honor of her work.
She is as lauded in Caen as is her husband – for her tireless work with after-school programs, a concept she helped pioneer in France.
Jean McNair is buried in Caen. So is McNair’s eldest son, Johari, who in 1998 was shot dead on a street in Winston-Salem, targeted by a local gang in a revenge killing.
There are grandkids to consider.
Three from Ayana, two more from another son, Tumaïni, who was born in France, and three – one of whom died recently – from Johari. McNair is not able to see Johari’s children often because they live in the U.S.
One thing McNair has learned: Be careful whom you trust.
But he trusts baseball despite its ever shifting velocities, movements, its life-mimicking curveballs and swift reversals of fortune.
In fact, McNair’s best baseball pitch, like the arc of his life, is a slow curveball.
“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,” he says.
Almost 50 years after hijacking a plane from Detroit to Algeria, Melvin McNair is still coming to terms with the lifelong consequences of his actions. Watch this 2012 documentary directed by Maia Wechsler, produced by Maia Wechsler and Matthieu Belghiti and edited by Sophie Brunet.