Gen. Joseph McNeil
On February 1st, 1960, Joseph McNeil and his three college classmates went to the counter at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina and asked to be served lunch. On that winter afternoon the four men decided, after McNeil was refused food a few days earlier, to engage in a sit-in at that would have them forever remembered as the "Greensboro Four".
The stories etched into that famous counter were brought to life on March 29th, 2016 when General Joseph McNeil visited Molloy College to speak to students about his life, his role in the Civil Rights Movement and the current state of affairs regarding the social inequality.
"56 years ago, if you were a black man in certain parts of our country, there were places where you could not sit down and drink a lousy cup of coffee," and this was something that McNeil and his comrades wanted to change. However, their sit-in was something that was about much more than just getting a simple cup of coffee, it was about "demanding to be treated with respect, and all the while defying the establishment and the order of things."
"Sit-ins were in your face, but in an unusual way- very quiet, very reserved," McNeil explained to the transfixed crowd in the Hays Theatre.
It is hard to imagine that between 1835 and 1935, 2,400 black people were lynched. The monstrosities of the past are not as distant as they may seem, and for McNeil and his classmates, this reality of racial discrimination was one that was ever-present in their lives.
But, before the Greensboro Four would earn their now-infamous reputation, there were some important lessons that the men would have to grasp. "We had to learn something that was really hard for me, and that was nonviolence. We had determined that nonviolence was the only way our movement was going to be successful."
However, this understanding is one that is easier said than done. "You needed integrity to participate when someone was going to be beating you in the head and asking you to be nonviolent." And these men wrestled with this difficult truth when they took their seats at that renowned lunch counter.
Their beliefs guided them through their difficulties. "We believed in the constitution. We believed that it was appropriate for all people to vote. We believed that racial segregation and Jim Crow was wrong. So, we had to face that segregation."
And while McNeil admitted that their sit-in was not the first of its kind, it undoubtedly made an impact on the landscape of Civil Rights in the United States. "What we had was a shared vision. And that vision was to remove all racial segregation."
The fire of passion and grit that was sparked by their courageous actions was one that McNeil exclaimed started well before they took their seats. "We built upon our past," and the resilience that individuals like "Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and the Little Rock Nine" faced was essential because "the pursuit of justice was working around (their) concepts regarding character."
Now, as a Civil Rights Leader, McNeil understands that his role is to inspire, just as his heroes inspired him some decades past. "Some time ago, I embraced the concept of being a servant (in the Civil Rights Movement)," and McNeil told the attending students, many of whom were his age when he decided to make a stand against segregation, that he finds it to be an honor to engage in this communication across generations.
Reaching his hand out in determination, McNeil stressed that "you ought to believe in something, and that belief ought to be strong." The ills of the past are not all recollected, and McNeil believes there is still a lot of work to be done to work towards a true sense of the word equality.
"But today, what's going on today, was impacted by our past. What did we learn? We still have what I would call a target rich environment. Things that need attention and change. Nationally, we have a crying need for major need in our criminal justice system. Masses of black teenagers are going to jail in huge numbers, and this is not a good thing for everyone. So it's begging, looking for leadership. That leader might be you."