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Transcript of full Joseph McNeil interview

My name is Joseph McNeil. I am 65 years old and I was born in Wilmington, N.C., 1942.

Why did I become an activist? I guess I've been an activist, if you want to use that term, all my life.

Feelings that are deep and reflective of who you are. There are not points in life where one starts and one stops.

I was blessed in life with very strong, proud parents and good teachers. And, I learned early what I now call core values. Things that I base my life on. Things that matter to me. So, in a sense I've been an activist all of my life, as far as I can remember. If you see something wrong , you stand up, you take it on. You try to do things that matter. My core values allow me to focus on what I will call the dignity of mankind. I believe that mankind's fundamentally good, and good will prevail over evil.

Q. Is there any specific thing that led you to being an activist?

McNeil: There are no particular triggers that would be isolated. It all has to be put in context. I grew up in the South in a segregated environment. I lived in New York City for three or four of those years and every summer. Went to Public School 13 in Harlem in the third grade. I went to St. Thomas the Apostle in the eighth grade also. So, that environment of being in the North in the summer and going to a segregated environment in the South, back and forth, molded who I am.

Q. First, tell us what you did that brings us here today?

McNeil: Every year various forums and matters have become part of the commemorative process where we talk about the sit-ins from 1960 and I was a key part of the sit-ins and something I'm personally very, very proud of. But those sit-ins influenced many, many people in life and I'm so proud to be associated with them. I just saw a movie, The Great Debate ... the Great Debaters by Denzel Washington and one of the characters in there, in that movie, was James Farmer. I met James Farmer, I knew James Farmer. James Farmer almost talked me into being part of the Freedom Rides. There're so many people who were truly great, good human beings involved in that Civil Rights experience. I'm so happy, personally, to have been a part of that.

I became involved and started the sit-ins because I fundamentally believed that segregation was an evil. And I thought it was important for me to step up and to do something about this. It was important as a part of my becoming a man. My friend and cohort Frank McCain says it was a down payment on our manhood and in many, many ways.

Q. Tell us, you were 17 on Feb. 1, 1960. Take us back to that date when you and your cohorts went to that whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth's.

McNeil: Feb. 1, 1960. three of my colleagues, David Richmond, who is no longer with us, Jibreel Khazan, who at the time was Ezell Blair Jr., and Franklin McCain and I sat down at a segregated Woothworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. We ordered apple pie and coffee. And we were not served. We were, previously, in other parts of the store where we purchased items like toothpaste, notebook paper, other sundry items, without incident. When we sat down at this lunch counter and asked to be served coffee and apple pie, we were told that we couldn't be served. We were told by several people that if we continued to sit at this lunch counter that we were going to get into a lot of trouble. And we advised the store and its employees and its manager that we intended to sit and to continue to sit until they served us, because they had served us in other parts of the store so they could in fact serve us if they so chose to do so. So we continued to sit.

The store manager called the police and the policeman came and he walked back and forth behind us. And he took his night stick and he thumped it in his hand in a threatening manner, but we continued to sit. People stopped and looked at this phenomenon that was taking place. We continued to sit. The store was getting ready to close and we had been sitting for, oh, about an hour and 30 minutes and an elderly white lady came and sat beside my friend Frank McCain and I, and she looked at Frank and said, 'Son, I am disappointed in you.' And McCain looked at her in amazement and said, 'Ma'am, you're disappointed in me, why would you be disappointed in me? You don't know me.' She said, 'well I'm disappointed and the reason I'm disappointed is that it took you boys so long to do what you're doing.' And a smile came on McCain's face as well as mine because that was our first sign of open support. Somebody stepping forward and saying you're doing the right thing, even though it may be controversial.

The help in the store advised us to leave because it was their means of employment. I don't think they had too much of a choice. So we left the store. We didn't get served coffee or apple pie. We told the store manager that we'd be back and we'd keep coming back until they served us. As we left the store, we were met by an Associated Press photographer. Jack, and I forget Jack's last name, he recently passed away about four or fives years, but he took a picture of the four of us leaving the store. And there was a short newspaper article noting that that day, four students sat at a lunch counter and said they were going to keep coming back until they were served. So that made the press, and we went back to campus. Because were young at the time, I was 17, the youngest, we knew that we needed help. So we approached several other students. I would say we probably approached 16 in all and, five or six said they would come back with us the next day. They did. And so our burgeoning movement of four grew into eight. The next day there were probably 25 of us. This, what I will call a movement, it turned out in hindsight to be a movement. We didn't know that at the time, but this movement started to grow, so that by the end of the third day, our 25 of us was happening, but another city, Winston Salem, and Portsmouth, Va., a couple of other cities -- Highpoint [N.C.] all these places start to have spontaneous sit-ins at these Woolworth lunch counters.

Because we were freshmen, we recognized that we needed help, and we went to the various leadership positions, students who had leadership positions on campus, and asked for their help in doing this. We told those people and those other kids it was important that you be nonviolent, that if we weren't nonviolent we'd probably not accomplish what we wanted to accomplish and that was to bring attention to segregation, it's negative impact on black people so those students agreed to do that. And so by the fourth day the Greensboro group was 125. Other areas in other parts of the country saw that there was national who had been thinking about doing sits in for some time, Durham, places in Maryland, South Carolina, throughout the South all these spontaneous student movements, nonviolent student movements started to happen and started to influence people. And before you knew it there were pickets in all the Woolworth stores nationally. There were pickets in Philadelphia, there were pickets in Harlem, on 125th Street. It was a magnificent thing to be a part of. I don't know if you've ever been able to say this is something I really believe in. If they're going to put us in jail, that's okay, because this is something worth going to jail for. If they're going to hit us and hurt us, there couldn't be anything more nobler than to stand up for human rights and civil rights at that time. We chose to be nonviolent and in hindsight it worked.

Q. What was the event that inspired the Woolworth counter sit-in? Were there sit-ins elsewhere?

McNeil: We had heard of other sit-ins when I was in high school in Wilmington, we had heard of sit-ins and protest movements and talked about doing something. We probably picked it up from someplace in Oklahoma City there were sit-ins several years ago, so sit-ins were used as means of protest didn't start with the Greensboro Four. But the fact that this massive student movement resulted from the Greensboro sit-ins is a reality. There was no particular event or singular event it was years and years of injustice. Segregation was an evil. Years and years of lynchings and murders and beatings. All these things had a cumulative effect. One of the things that impressed me was the fact that the Little Rock Nine was able to influence their history by being strong, being brave, being what I would call Children of Courage, in the fact that they could endure and prevail. Another event that influenced me was the horror that happened to Emmett Till left a deep scar on me and the fact that in our country, in our America, let that happen. So there's no particular event, but a series of cumulative events.

Q. What was your proudest moment? Greatest accomplishment as it relates to your activism. And how would you like to be remembered?

McNeil: there's several things that I would call one of my proudest moments. One would be the fact that I was associated with some of the finest people to walk on this earth. People of courage. People of principle. People who didn't ask what's in this for me, but who gave of time, of money, physical presence. People who took abuse. Black people, white people, red people, brown people. People from every segment of life. Poor people, people of wealth, all found a way to be part of this. It became a movement. What I'm proud of is the fact that I was, early on, part of this group, and formed the basis of my life. The fact the we could use nonviolence, the fact that I could meet a James Farmer, Floyd McKissick. The fact that we could meet a Dr. King and all those things was so important to me, being a part of my life and my work

Q. How did you cope with the fear?

McNeil: the fear aspect is one, and I don't like to use the term fear. When I think of fear I think of something [Gen. George] Patton said. He said fear is something that all human beings have. The fat that we have it is not important. What is important is how we handle fear. And I think that whatever fear we had, we handled very, very well it was uncertain that we weren't going to be attacked. It was very unusual for four black males to take a stand of defiance. We grew up in a legacy where lynchings took place normally to a large degree we handled it so well because of something intangible called faith. Faith in doing something we knew was right and standing up for it. Faith in our creators that good was going to prevail over evil. That faith sustained us and became an important part of all our demonstrations later on. You stand there and take a slug in the face or you're hit with a pipe like the Freedom Riders. You needed strong faith to be able to handle that

Q. How do you think history will regard the activism he was a part of:

McNeil: I think history will say that this is some of our prouder moments as human beings because what's taking place back in those periods of time became not just local in nature, they became national, and they became international. I received letters from people in Brazil when this was happening. We see the influence of nonviolence and rightness going on for years afterwards. We see it in Poland when Lech Walesa had a solidarity movement. People were singing "We Shall Overcome." We saw it in China when the students were protesting against the tanks rolling down Tiananmen Square. So, we see this as being an important part of history. We always need to remember the good that we've done. We make a lot of mistakes in life, yet we don't ever need to give up. Goodness will prevail in the end and we just need to keep doing the right principled thing to always have the moral high ground

Q. Talk about meeting people like Farmer

McNeil: Meeting people in the movement was so important to me because it was part of my growth. SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is a product of the sit-ins, a direct product of the sit-ins. It involved students and others from around the country who felt the need to make this thing that was evolving into a movement coherent, focus our attentions and spread our resources and manage our resources effectively .people I respect, the John Lewises. Somebody called us the Children of Courage and I think of them in that respect We stood up against an evil, we stood for principle, we stood for justice. We stood for dignity of man

I'm retired now. My last job was with the FAA. I retired in the senior executive service. I was manager of the Eastern Region of Flight Standards. That job was global in nature. It involved not just the Eastern Part of the United States, from Washington up through New York State, but also it involved Europe, Africa and the Middle East, providing regulatory as well as other aspects of aviation. So, it was an important position. I was one of a few diversity candidates, diversity managers in the FAA. I think I was a key part in developing other types of diversity programs in the agency

I was at the FAA from '87 to 2002 .

I served on active duty in the Air Force as a navigator for six years, 1963 to 1969. After that period of time of active duty, I became a part of the Air Force reserve, a citizen soldier. [at McQuire AFB for most of it, squadron commander, etc. becoming a general officer and retiring with 2 stars [as major general]

Q. in 2008, how do you feel about race relations, discrimination? Are you hopeful still amid so many problems?

NcNeil: I am optimistic about race relations. It often seems as if we take three steps forward and two back. Retaining and maintaining some of the gains, I would say, of civil rights is often difficult. I say we stay the moral high ground. It's going to evolve. It's so important to still be here and that we do the right thing When you look at the world on a global basis, if America doesn't exercise this kind of relationship in human relations then who in our world will? The conflicts, the religious conflicts, all the conflicts that we have, I think it's important for each of us to define our moral high ground and come forward and stand for the principles that we personally believe in. But it's important that we as a country, as a nation, stand up and provide the leadership.

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