In exile in France, McNair has built a life around community service and baseball. He is wanted by authorities in the U.S. for his 50-year-old crime.
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
‘We felt we were facing death’
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.”
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.
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.
Melvin McNair made a life for himself and his family in Caen, France. A retired social worker, he spends most of his time in a neighborhood called La Grâce de Dieu.
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.