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.

This series explores the unseen, unheard, lost and forgotten stories of America’s people of color.

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