Four students from Huntington sat down with retired Air Force Major Gen. and civil rights pioneer Joseph McNeil Wednesday to ask him about the day, nearly 60 years ago, when McNeil and three friends sat at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Credit: Howard Schnapp; Photo Credit: Granger

Joseph A. McNeil, of Hempstead, took a seat at a "whites-only" Greensboro lunch counter 63 years ago and decided it was time to take a stand.

McNeil, 80, is one of the two surviving civil rights activists protesting racial segregation in the Jim Crow south who came to be known as the Greensboro Four. Along with three other classmates at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, McNeil led sit-ins at the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter for nearly six months until Black and white diners were permitted to eat together.

“I felt good taking a stand. There’s so many things we do that don't matter much, but a lot could be done,” McNeil told a group of Huntington teens  interviewing him at his home Wednesday for a Black History Month project.

“We stepped up and were filling a void. I think we grew so much and grew into ourselves and how we treated ourselves. We learned to stand up for what's good.”

The teenagers were gathering information on McNeil and his place at the heart of the civil rights movement as well as getting his thoughts on equality in 2023, all for the Town of Huntington’s Black History Project.

Cianna Batts, 18, a Huntington High graduate; her brother Cameron, 12, and Jocelyn Thorbourne, 13, who both attend J. Taylor Finley Middle School in Huntington; and DeAndre Simmons, 15, a Huntington High student, filmed their conversation with McNeil for a Feb. 16 Black History Month video presentation by the town at Jack Abrams Stem Magnet School in Huntington Station. 

The four also sat at Munday’s Diner in Huntington to show the freedoms they now have thanks to the Greensboro Four’s protests.

“It was just eye-opening that now we can do exactly what he did but with no repercussions at all," said Cianna Batts, who is Black. “So it's kind of weird to think about how things that we do on a daily basis we could not have had access to. It makes you think about not taking things for granted.”

The students took turns asking McNeil questions — about his activism, about progress all these years later made for civil rights, and about that day, Feb. 1, 1960, at the lunch counter.

McNeil was 17 when he walked into the Woolworth's with three friends and ordered a coffee and a doughnut, only to be denied service. Instead of leaving the lunch counter, the friends stood up, McNeil said, by sitting down.

“We strongly believe that by standing up and taking a stand for something that we felt the urge to make sure that we stood up for our part of the good,” McNeil said. “There was no master plan. It was individuals who strongly believed in what they were doing.”

The sit-in movement spread to 50 cities across the country, McNeil said. Their own Greensboro sit-in lasted for five months and more than three weeks as they gained more support.

He said what started as him and three friends grew to 16 people the next day. The next day, 60 protesters descended on the lunch counter. Eventually nearly 1,000 people, both Black and white, took part in the sit-ins.

“After the first day, they wrote us off as college kids having a fling and said, you can't be serious and told us move down the street,” McNeil said. “They asked, are you coming back? We told them we’ll be back and back in numbers.”

News of the protest quickly reached Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow civil rights icon John Lewis.

When Ku Klux Klan members and others from racist groups physically threatened the activists, they practiced what King and others civil rights leaders preached.

“We embraced the principles of nonviolence because we didn't have any alternatives,” McNeil said “We knew that if we engaged in fights we’d lose what was most important for us — to come back and take a stand and keep coming and growing and believing what we're doing.”

McNeil said the work is not finished and he wants the younger generations to keep fighting for civil rights and influencing others. He said he is concerned about the U.S. Supreme Court changing laws and stripping freedoms.

He quoted his fellow Greensboro activist, the late Frank McCain, who said the four "were just making a down payment on our freedom.”

As they were sitting at the lunch counter all those years ago, an elderly white woman told the Greensboro Four she was disappointed in them. They asked why.

“She said, ‘You should have done this years ago.’ ”

Joseph A. McNeil, of Hempstead, took a seat at a "whites-only" Greensboro lunch counter 63 years ago and decided it was time to take a stand.

McNeil, 80, is one of the two surviving civil rights activists protesting racial segregation in the Jim Crow south who came to be known as the Greensboro Four. Along with three other classmates at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, McNeil led sit-ins at the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter for nearly six months until Black and white diners were permitted to eat together.

“I felt good taking a stand. There’s so many things we do that don't matter much, but a lot could be done,” McNeil told a group of Huntington teens  interviewing him at his home Wednesday for a Black History Month project.

We stepped up

“We stepped up and were filling a void. I think we grew so much and grew into ourselves and how we treated ourselves. We learned to stand up for what's good.”

What to know

  • Joseph A. McNeil, of Hempstead, talked Wednesday about refusing to leave a "whites-only" Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter 63 years ago.
  • McNeil discussed his life as a civil rights activist with a group of Huntington teens working on a Black History Month project.
  • Video of McNeil's conversation will be part of a Feb. 16 Black History Month presentation by the Town of Huntington at Jack Abrams Stem Magnet School in Huntington Station. 

The teenagers were gathering information on McNeil and his place at the heart of the civil rights movement as well as getting his thoughts on equality in 2023, all for the Town of Huntington’s Black History Project.

Cianna Batts, 18, a Huntington High graduate; her brother Cameron, 12, and Jocelyn Thorbourne, 13, who both attend J. Taylor Finley Middle School in Huntington; and DeAndre Simmons, 15, a Huntington High student, filmed their conversation with McNeil for a Feb. 16 Black History Month video presentation by the town at Jack Abrams Stem Magnet School in Huntington Station. 

The four also sat at Munday’s Diner in Huntington to show the freedoms they now have thanks to the Greensboro Four’s protests.

An eye-opening experience

“It was just eye-opening that now we can do exactly what he did but with no repercussions at all," said Cianna Batts, who is Black. “So it's kind of weird to think about how things that we do on a daily basis we could not have had access to. It makes you think about not taking things for granted.”

The students took turns asking McNeil questions — about his activism, about progress all these years later made for civil rights, and about that day, Feb. 1, 1960, at the lunch counter.

McNeil was 17 when he walked into the Woolworth's with three friends and ordered a coffee and a doughnut, only to be denied service. Instead of leaving the lunch counter, the friends stood up, McNeil said, by sitting down.

“We strongly believe that by standing up and taking a stand for something that we felt the urge to make sure that we stood up for our part of the good,” McNeil said. “There was no master plan. It was individuals who strongly believed in what they were doing.”

The sit-in movement spread to 50 cities across the country, McNeil said. Their own Greensboro sit-in lasted for five months and more than three weeks as they gained more support.

He said what started as him and three friends grew to 16 people the next day. The next day, 60 protesters descended on the lunch counter. Eventually nearly 1,000 people, both Black and white, took part in the sit-ins.

“After the first day, they wrote us off as college kids having a fling and said, you can't be serious and told us move down the street,” McNeil said. “They asked, are you coming back? We told them we’ll be back and back in numbers.”

News of the protest quickly reached Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow civil rights icon John Lewis.

Principles of nonviolence

When Ku Klux Klan members and others from racist groups physically threatened the activists, they practiced what King and others civil rights leaders preached.

“We embraced the principles of nonviolence because we didn't have any alternatives,” McNeil said “We knew that if we engaged in fights we’d lose what was most important for us — to come back and take a stand and keep coming and growing and believing what we're doing.”

McNeil said the work is not finished and he wants the younger generations to keep fighting for civil rights and influencing others. He said he is concerned about the U.S. Supreme Court changing laws and stripping freedoms.

He quoted his fellow Greensboro activist, the late Frank McCain, who said the four "were just making a down payment on our freedom.”

As they were sitting at the lunch counter all those years ago, an elderly white woman told the Greensboro Four she was disappointed in them. They asked why.

“She said, ‘You should have done this years ago.’ ”

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