The life of one of the black panthers. On July 31, 1972, Delta Air Lines flight 841, bound for Miami from Detroit, was hijacked. Onboard are 86 passengers and the flight’s crew. The plane occupants are held hostage by a group of three men, two women, and two young children, all black.
The Delta airliner lands at Miami airport. An airport vehicle, driven by a man in a bathing suit, approaches the airliner. Upon nearing the airliner, the car comes to a stop, and another man alights from the passenger seat, dressed in a bathing suit, and heads for the airliner’s door.
The man is seen carrying a heavy blue suitcase. A rope is let down from the flight’s door, and the briefcase is hauled up. Eighty-six passengers are then released from the airliner unharmed, and the plane takes off.
And that’s how the hijackers collected the highest ransom ever demanded during the 1960-1980 era. The men in the airport vehicle were unarmed FBI agents. Inside the blue briefcase was a cool $1 million in cash.
The hijackers were trying to reach the Black Panther Party’s headquarter in Algeria. While they also wanted to leave a mark, they did by collecting the most ransom ever demanded. Eventually, after departing from Miami airport, the hijackers did reach their destination.
However, in Algeria, which was then a haven for exiled Black Panthers and other militants, the unexpected happened, the money was returned to the US. Algerian officials granted asylum to the hijackers and then returned the ransom money and the plane back to the US. No one was killed or injured in the entire hijacking ordeal.
The hijackers were George Wright, George Brown, Joyce Tillerson (Brown’s girlfriend), Melvin McNair, and Jean (McNair’s wife). The two children were Melvin’s and Jean’s children.
This article takes center stage focus on Melvin McNair, the man at the airliner’s door who threw down the rope, all the way from where it all started till his current life.
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Melvin and Jean
Melvin McNair grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. He had sportsmanship skills, playing baseball and American football, which made him stand out and sponsored his education.
His baseball team was the state champions in the black league. His studies at North Carolina State College, where he played American football, were sponsored by a sports scholarship. He also met Jean at the university.
Unfortunately, his studies came to a sudden end when he took part in the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther. This resulted in him being dropped out of the football team and the cancellation of his scholarship.
McNair says that he came to discover institutional racism when he was drafted to the US Army. He witnessed Ku Klux Klan-style burning on US military compound and white supremacist beating up his fellow black comrades based in Berlin.
With racism painted on the walls, he and his black comrades began passive resistance by growing their hair long, wearing black armbands, refusing to salute officers, and not standing up for national anthems. All this was in preparation for militant action. During this passive resistance, the US-based Black Panther movement, hoping to extend to Berlin, reached out and recruited McNair.
In 1970 McNair was told he would soon be set to fight in Vietnam. At this time, Jean was with him in Berlin, and they were expecting their first child. The two flew back to the US under the pretense that they would look for a place where Jean and their son would live when McNair was out fighting.
While in the US, McNair went up to Detroit, the then hive of black militancy. At Detroit, he cohabited with the other two hijackers, George Wright and George Brown, who were law-fugitives. Neither Melvin nor Jean knew that Wright had been convicted of murder in a robbery that went wrong, living dead a petrol station owner.
Later on, George Brown sustained minor injuries after being shot by the Detroit police station. The incident increased the urge of the now three men to try and get out of the US. Their ultimate destination was Algeria, where Eldridge Cleaver, the charismatic Black Panther leader, had been welcomed after being hunted down by the US justice system.
A plan was hatched, and what better way to reach Algeria than hijacking a plane, which was more common then. McNair and his newly acquired acquaintances got straight to developing a fail-proof plan. They spent time at Detroit airport, looking at the pros and cons of hijacking, and most importantly, selecting a suitable plane that can go all the way to Algeria.
From Detroit to Algeria
On the hijack day, Brown dressed as a student, Wright as a priest, and Melvin as a businessman. Alongside them were Joyce, Jean, and the two children. They managed to smuggle in three guns assumed to have been hidden in hollowed-out Bibles.
With the Delta flight 841 bound for Miami airborne, the hijackers sprang into action after passengers had their meal. Avoiding to create a sense of panic, they played soul music; who does that?
“We didn’t want to create a sense of panic, remember we had three children traveling with us too. We even tried to make the mood lighter by playing a cassette of soul music including Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and the Four Tops,” McNair says.
After landing in Miami, they had negotiations with the FBI in which they rejected half a million dollars, and even Wright, dressed as a priest, threatened to shoot one hostage. The FBI agreed to their ransom demand, and there he was, McNair at the door, throwing down the rope and hauling up the briefcase.
The hostages were released in what appeared to be a peaceful hijack. The plane took off to Algeria via Boston, where they picked up a navigator to help then through the Atlantic, since the pilot, Captain May, had never flown across the Atlantic.
On arrival at Algiers, men sprung out of the bush with guns pointed to the cockpit, says Captain May. The Algerian officials then granted asylum to the hijackers, who immediately addressed the media with Wright at the center. The Algerian government then sent back the money and the plane, which still had the passengers’ luggage.
Melvin terms Captain May as the hero of the entire ordeal. He even says they offered to pay him, but he turned down the offer. According to Melvin, the pilot had urged the FBI and their sharpshooters that everything was calm on board.
‘That’s a job well done.’ But afterward, we thought of how many things could have gone wrong,” McNair recalls their sentiments as they disembarked from the plain.
McNair and his other hijackers realized that Algeria was not so much of a haven anymore. A friendly relationship was building up between the US and Algeria. For about 12months, they were housed in Algiers’ suburb surrounded by peculiar agents, whom McNair believes included US Navy Seals.
Melvin and Jean reached a consensus to send their children back to the US to live with their relatives. Their decision was driven by what McNair termed as living in “constant danger.” Moreover, the Black Panthers’ stay in Algiers was also soon due.
Move to Paris
Along with Brown and Tillerson, Melvin and Jean used fake passports and support from international human rights groups to flee to Paris through Geneva. They arrived in Paris in 1974, where they lived with French sympathizers and did odd jobs to support themselves. When questioned about why they were in France, their scape-goat was that they had fled from the US to avoid being sent to fight in Vietnam.
After two years in France, they were finally arrested by the French Police. However, the French court only tried them for hijacking and did not extradite them as the US had wanted. The four were held in pre-trial detention for two years.
Jean and Tillerson were released to take care of their children after the trial. Melvin was given a five-year jail term, which was later reduced for his good behavior and will to learn French. He became a free man in 1980.Lack of the will to learn French gave brown a longer-term, according to Melvin.
McNair’s Life after Prison
In the early 1980s, McNair and his wife Jean moved to Caen’s coastal town, Normandy, after retrained as a sports coach and a social worker. Since then, he has imparted playing baseball at the Phenix Caen, a local club. The club ground has since been named after him and Jean.
Melvin has also done charity works in the destitute Grace de Dieu (Grace of God) neighborhood, situated in its outskirts. He says he uses his story as a wake-up call for the kids in the area’s schools to respect each other, work hard, and study.
Jean, who was staying with McNair, worked on social equality issues in the area. Sadly, Jean died a few years back.
His oldest son, Johari, returned to the US and was shot dead in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1998, aged 28. His father says he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and tried to confront a gang leader. In a 2012 documentary, Johari’s death was tragic to Melvin and made him breakdown as he narrated it.
The now 72-year-old Melvin McNair continues with his charitable works in the community. Among his current undertakings is advising families with financial difficulties on various avenues of getting finances and improving the estates’ local police’s relationship with kids.
His two remaining children are French citizens. Both Jean and Johari were buried in Caen, where Melvin also says it will be his resting place. He misses home but fears being arrested if he returns to the US.
He fancies the Black Lives Matter movement but is concerned with rumors of black militants resorting to arms for defensive purposes. He relates the militants with the Black Panthers movement, who had the motive of eradicating racism and fighting injustices, but when they resorted to arms, the US had leverage to get rid of them.
When asked if he regretted the 1972 hijack, he had this to say:
“I always have regrets, in the sense that if you were more intelligent and less naive, you wouldn’t have made the mistakes that you did. I regret the racism that forced me into the desperate situation that forced me to react in the way I did. I regret that it has forced me into exile away from America and my family, but I got a second chance to make a positive change in the community I am in now.”
Where are the Supporting Characters?
Remember the pilot McNair called a hero, Captain William May? He visited the McNairs in France for a reunion. Who would have guessed they would hug and shake each other’s hands? Well, they did, and you can catch that in the Melvin & Jean documentary. May went from flying domestic Delta flights to international flights after the hijack.
Joyce Tillerson died of cancer in 2000 after working for the South African embassy in Paris. George Brown, who was also in Paris, passed on five years ago.
Lastly, George Wright made his way to Guinea-Bissau, where he went underground to re-emerge in Portugal bearing the country’s citizenship. It is reported that he came to Portugal in 1993 with the name Jose Luis Jorge Dos Santos. He says he did not commit the murder he was earlier accused of. The Portuguese courts have twice dismissed the American extradition demands. He continues to live in Portugal.