Civil rights pioneer Joseph McNeil honored in Uniondale

Dr. Joseph McNeil, of Hempstead, one of the

Dr. Joseph McNeil, of Hempstead, one of the "Greensboro Four," stands in the hallway of the Marriot in Uniondale where he was attending the 29th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Black History Month Program on Feb. 22, 2014. (Credit: Steve Pfost)

One of the last living "Greensboro Four," who as college freshmen famously sat at a segregated Southern F.W. Woolworth's lunch counter in defiance of 1960 Jim Crow, was honored Saturday on Long Island.

Joseph A. McNeil, 71, a longtime Hempstead resident, received a special recognition award from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity's Eta Theta Lambda chapter at its 29th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Black History Month Luncheon in Uniondale.

McNeil and three other black students at North Carolina A&T University led the sit-ins that began on Feb. 1, 1960, at Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., and galvanized youths to fight segregation nationwide. The Greensboro Woolworth's was desegregated within six months.

Franklin McCain, one of the four, died Jan. 9 at 73 in Greensboro, and David Richmond died in 1990 at 49, according to media reports. The fourth member, Jibreel Khazan, then known as Ezell A. Blair Jr., lives in New Bedford, Mass.

"The catalyst, really in the end, was anger," McNeil, a retired Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector, said in an interview. "Anger at the way my parents were treated, anger at the way that segregation and Jim Crow [a system that enforced it] had been pre-planned for my children."

National Urban League president Marc Morial delivered the keynote address at the event at the Marriott hotel.

Morial said in an interview there has been "enormous progress," citing the presence of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in office. "But then you look at this great economic divide that . . . is getting worse. You look at the continuous assault on voting . . . you recognize that this idea of civil rights . . . must endure in an ongoing struggle."

Fraternity chapter president Rodney H. McRae said the Urban League and McNeil were "pivotal" in the movement.

McNeil, a retired Air Force major general, said, "There were a lot of people out there who felt this anger and wanted to do something."

He recalled being nervous about what could happen as he sat amid the din of whispers from customers.

"We could have been attacked that day," he said. "I could've been carried out in a pine box."

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