Sylvain Pattieu: “France Does Have a Racial History”

French historian and novelist Sylvain Pattieu has just published Panthères et pirates : Des Afro-Américains entre lutte des classes et Black Power, a book about Jean and Melvin McNair, two American hijackers who took control of a plane in 1972 before going on the run in France.
© Sylvain Cherkaou

On July 31, 1972, the Delta Air Lines flight 841 took off from Detroit carrying 94 passengers, including five hijackers and their three children. After seizing control of the plane, they flew it to Algeria with a ransom of one million dollars to join the international branch of the Black Panther Party. They then went into exile in France, where they were arrested in 1976 and sentenced two years later. Having written a 2017 literary account of Jean and Melvin McNair, two of the hostage-takers, Sylvain Pattieu is now looking back over their story as a researcher specialized in the working classes and Black populations in France. Backed by archival material and witness statements, Panthères et pirates highlights the circulation of issues of class and race, and their roles on both sides of the Atlantic.

France-Amérique: How did you hear about this story?

Sylvain Pattieu: I was told about it by my friend Tyler Stovall, who sadly passed away in December 2021, an African-American historian and an expert on France [his works include Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light]. In 2015, he took me to a ceremony in honor of Jean McNair, who had just died. That was where I discovered their story and saw Melvin for the first time. He was very charismatic, and surrounded by many young people from different backgrounds.

What pushed Jean and Melvin McNair to hijack a plane?

They are very typical of the generation of Black Americans who benefited from the civil rights movement but who also found itself in a deadlock. They were from a poor community in North Carolina, a state highly affected by segregation. They went to university in the hope of becoming upwardly mobile, but in the context of the mid-1960s when America was gripped by the civil rights movement, student protests, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Melvin, who was a quarterback on his university’s football team, was expelled for questioning his coaches’ methods. He was drafted into the army, was sent to Germany, and was confronted with racism. As he was connected to the Black Panthers, he was selected to be sent to Vietnam. He deserted the military, moved to Detroit, and lived in hiding. This is where he met George Brown, George Wright, and Joyce Tillerson. Together, they came up with a plan to leave the United States, and decided to hijack a plane and fly to Algeria. At the time, the country was the capital of the third world and a symbol of victory against French colonization.

What ties did the five hijackers have to France?

Black Americans’ affinity for France dates back to the late 19th century, when the Black elite would send their children to France to study. During the 1920s, people realized that there was no segregation in France. When the hijackers arrived in France, many Black American intellectuals such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright had already lived there. However, the networks that enabled them to leave Algeria were mainly French. At the time, in post-colonial France, they were able to slip by unnoticed as Black people. There was also a French tradition of independence from the United States, and the hijackers’ greatest fear was being extradited and sentenced to life in prison.

The McNairs and two of their accomplices were finally arrested in Paris in 1976. How did the trial of the “Fleury Four” proceed in 1978?

It became the trial of racist America. The attorneys showed the jury the political dimension of their actions. The hijackers were still sentenced to five years in prison, which is considerable. The women were released in 1978 but the men remained in prison until 1980. These were not light punishments, but the members of the jury recommended that the defendants should not be extradited – which went above and beyond their prerogatives. The hijackers were judged as Black people, but above all as Black Americans. We can therefore see how important it is to study the nuance and complexity of racialization. Race counts for a lot, but so does nationality. The hijackers benefited from a French fascination for the struggles of Black Americans.

What happened when they were freed?

They were unable to return to the United States, and had to decide what to do with their lives. They all remained committed to the fight for social justice and against racism. Joyce Tillerson worked for the Cimade [a French organization assisting migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers] and became the secretary for the anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September. George Brown married a French woman and hosted former Black Panthers in Paris. Jean and Melvin McNair first joined a collective of American citizens against Ronald Reagan, then turned to a less revolutionary and more local form of activism focused on sports for Melvin and helping with schoolwork for Jean. Melvin found redemption by becoming a basketball and baseball coach. They lived in a working-class neighborhood of Caen, where they tried to apply the things that they had learned during their own youth, especially the supervision of young people by the community. This was also a time when their religious culture became more important. Faith offered them significant support and was a major dimension in their work.

Melvin McNair in Caen, Normandy, 2021. © Emmanuel Blivet/USA Today

How can the idea of race, which is criticized and even denied in France, be a useful tool in the fields of human and social sciences?

In France, anything that comes from the United States is often presented as a deterrent because it is considered a racist country. Meanwhile, France is supposedly a colorblind land of universalism. Many will point to the jazz musicians of the 1920s, or Josephine Baker, who came to work in France. But France does have a racial history. It is different from America’s, and did not include the same forms of extreme violence, aside from in the colonies. It has its own dynamics; it is not a U.S. import. Denying these issues means ignoring part of France’s social history.

You also say that we need to think in terms of circulation. What do you mean by this?

The histories of France and the United States do not exist in separate vacuums. There are transatlantic circulations. Black American movements are a resource for Black populations the world over. We are told that France simply copies American movements, but this is untrue. There have been French movements around for a long time, but they have not been strong enough to mobilize the collective imagination. French activists do not look back to these movements from the 1920s and 1930s, but instead to the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and now to Black Lives Matter.

Panthères et pirates : Des Afro-Américains entre lutte des classes et Black Power by Sylvain Pattieu, La Découverte, 2022.


Interview published in the September 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.