The peaceful exile of the Black Panthers of Normandy

Joshua Woods for M Le magazine du Monde

Posted today at 3:05 p.m.

On the postcards distributed in the middle of Paris are the “Quatre de Fleury”, a reference to the largest prison in Europe, in the Parisian suburbs. A nickname for four faces, all African-American: Joyce Tillerson, 25; George Brown, 32; Jean and Melvin McNair, 30 and 28, as a couple. We are at the end of 1976, these members of the Black Panthers, radical civil rights activists, have been imprisoned since May, awaiting trial. The “postcard operation” is an idea of ​​their support committee which has just been created. “From prison, Jean and I have written to over a hundred prominent personalities”, said Melvin McNair, 72, today.

Several are responding to the call, such as the president of Amnesty International, or the leaders of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU). At their side, many celebrities: Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Sartre, James Baldwin and even Guy Bedos. They activate their networks, raise funds, slip encouragement through the media, and support Melvin McNair and his “Colleagues” in the writing of a book for the editions of Seuil, from the prison. We, Black Americans escaped from the ghetto…, announced the cover when it was released in 1978.

The campaign is bearing fruit: almost “75%” of public opinion supports the quartet, according to Melvin. “Anonymous people encouraged us to stay strong, relates the former detainee. We had never seen it before and it convinced us that there was still hope. “ The “Quatre de Fleury” need it. In October 1976 their extradition trial began for a crime committed four years earlier: the hijacking of the Delta Airlines flight. 841 connecting Detroit to Miami.

France is holding on

America wants to try Melvin, Jean, Joyce and George, who risk the death penalty there. At best, life imprisonment. For Washington, these are “Dangerous criminals”. For Paris, they are Black Panthers. Far from the first pacifist speeches of Martin Luther King, these activists are ready to take up arms to defend themselves against an American state considered racist and violent.

The administration of Republican President Gerald Ford insists with the French Minister of the Interior at the time, Michel Poniatowski: a year earlier, France had refused the extradition to the United States of two other hijackers , Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, took action in 1972 to secure the release of Angela Davis – suspected of having supplied the weapons for a hostage-taking aimed at freeing George Jackson, another member of the Blacks Panthers, she was acquitted in 1972. In the space of a few years, more than a hundred planes were hijacked in the United States for political reasons.

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