Joseph McNeil

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Joseph McNeil
Official U.S. Air Force Photo
Birth nameJoseph Alfred McNeil
Born (1942-03-25) March 25, 1942 (age 82)
Wilmington, North Carolina
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branch United States Air Force
Years of service1963–2000
Rank Major General
Unit 702nd Military Airlift Squadron
22nd Air Force
Commands held702nd Military Airlift Squadron
22nd Air Force
Battles/warsVietnam War
Operation Arc Light
Operation Young Tiger
AwardsLegion of Merit
Meritorious Service Medal
Air Medal (with 3 oak leaf clusters)
Navy Distinguished Service Medal
Air Force Commendation Medal
Air Force Achievement Medal
Combat Readiness Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal
Vietnam Service Medal (with silver star)
Southwest Asia Service Medal (with bronze star)
Humanitarian Service Medal
Air Force Longevity Service Award (with 4 oak leaf clusters)
Armed Forces Reserve Medal
Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm
Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal
Spouse(s)Ina (Brown) McNeil

Joseph Alfred McNeil (born March 25, 1942) is a retired major general in the United States Air Force who is best known for being a member of the Greensboro Four—a group of African American college students who, on February 1, 1960, sat down at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, challenging the store's policy of denying service to non-white customers.

Early life and education[edit]

Joseph McNeil was born on March 25, 1942, in Wilmington, North Carolina.[1][2] McNeil grew up in Wilmington and was president of his parish's Catholic Youth Council.[3]  McNeil attended Williston Senior High School, where he was greatly influenced by his high school teachers. Williston Senior High School was a black school, so there were things taught their students that were probably not taught at the integrated schools. His high school instructors taught their students what their rights were as citizens: what rights they should and don't have, how they could go about obtaining their rights, and how they should react if their homes were invaded.[4] Teachers would often say things like, “They can take your house, your car, all your physical belongings, but they can’t take what you have up here.”[4] Williston Senior High School had some real solid, inspirational teachers that instilled a real sense of “go out and do something” mentality to their students.

After high school graduation, McNeil's family moved to New York City to seek better job opportunities.[5] In the fall, McNeil entered North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on a full scholarship. A stark contrast from the more open northern society, McNeil found it difficult living in the segregated south.[5] It was at North Carolina A&T where McNeil met three other freshmen: Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, and David Richmond, and the four would later become known as the Greensboro Four. The four gravitated towards each other because they lived on the same floor of the dormitory and shared similar interests.[6] After attending a concert with his friends, McNeil snapped into action because he watched several members of the audience being inconsiderate and arrogant. It was at that moment that McNeil and his peers wanted to act in response to the unacceptable behavior observed at the concert.[4]  McNeil began to check out and read several books on propaganda and projection of ideas from the library, one, in particular, was The New Negro.[4]

It is often believed that McNeil and his peers were inspired by Gandhi, however, McNeil said, “I’m not nonviolent. I’m an agnostic. I see the need for strong religious identification in this thing [Civil Rights Movement] and the work of religious leaders.”[4][7] McNeil would pray and attend church because the church was the rallying point of the movement and it is a rallying point today. Gandhi's ways were expedient, and they were the only thing that McNeil and others in the Civil Rights Movement could do. The people acting in the Civil Rights Movement could not afford to be violent because it would blow the image that the movement was trying to project.[4][6]

Joseph McNeil was a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at North Carolina A&T. ROTC taught McNeil a different type of leadership: things are done methodically, there is an objective, and most importantly, you follow.[4] If one is ever going to lead, then one must follow. McNeil and the rest of the Greensboro Four heavily relied on the students in ROTC to provide the mobilization concepts, attend meetings, and negotiate. People within the local community, ministers, and undertakers came together to support the movement.[4] McNeil's most memorable memory was that if he needed bail money for going to jail, that various African American Greensboro citizens would offer to put up their land as bail. McNeil and his peers didn't need much money because they would just need money to make a picket sign.[4][6] The fact that McNeil and his peers were students, their needs were simple since they had shelter, food, and could take risks that others couldn't.

McNeil would often converse with NAACP member and local Greensboro merchant, Ralph Johns. Ralph was greatly immersed in the community as he demonstratively showed support for North Carolina A&T and the students.[6] Ralph would tell McNeil about how he tried to convince people to do a sit-in type of protest, and McNeil felt a deep need to contribute. The Greensboro sit-ins became a reality because of the support and direction that Ralph Johns gave McNeil and his peers. Ralph understood that the sit-in needed to be publicized because without publicity, it is like a tree falling in the forest and nobody noticing.[4] Ralph was the one who notified Jo Spivey and the press about the sit-in at the downtown Greensboro Woolworth Store.[4]   

As it goes, on February 1, 1960; McNeil, along with three other A&T freshmen: Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain and David Richmond, walked together from the university's library to the downtown Greensboro Woolworth store.[8] Once there, the men purchased items from a desegregated counter, and then sat down at the "whites only" lunch counter where the group was refused service. McNeil and the group stayed until the store closed, and then left to return the next day.[1][7] As media coverage of the demonstrations grew, more protests were being staged through the state of North Carolina, and other Southern cities. As sales at boycotted stores began to be affected by the protests, store owners began to serve all customers in their establishments. After staging the sit-ins, McNeil became involved with the formation of the Student Executive Committee for Justice. This joint organization between A&T students and the women of nearby Bennett College, focused on the picketing of segregated downtown Greensboro establishments. McNeil would later participate in negotiations between student protesters, Woolworth's management, and the Human Relations Commission.[2]

In 1963, McNeil would go on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering physics from North Carolina A&T and was commissioned as a second lieutenant through the university's ROTC program immediately after graduation.[3][5][9]

Military career[edit]

In July 1963, McNeil was assigned to James Connally Air Force Base near Waco, Texas for Training. From 1964 to 1969, McNeil was assigned to Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota where he served as a KC-135 navigator.[5] McNeil spent considerable time in Southeast Asia flying in operations Arc Light and Young Tiger.[5] During this period, he was promoted to the ranks of first lieutenant and captain.[5] In 1972, McNeil served as a navigator instructor, flight commander, executive officer and Commander of the 702nd Military Airlift Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.[5] During this time, he also served as a liaison officer in for the U.S. Air Force Academy.[5] In 1989, McNeil served as special assistant to the Vice Commander and Commander of the 514th Airlift Wing at McGuire Air Force Base. During this time, McNeil was promoted to the ranks of major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel.[5]

After leaving active duty in 1969 with the rank of captain, McNeil continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve. From 1992 to 1995, he served as vice commander, and later commander, of the 22nd Air Force stationed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. He would also be promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1994.[5] In August 1995, McNeil would serve as mobilization assistant to the vice commander, and later the commander, at the Air Force Reserve Command Headquarters at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. In 2000, McNeil retired from the Air Force Reserve as a major general, having been promoted to the rank in 1996. After a military career of over thirty-seven years, and over 6,600 flight hours, he received the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal upon retirement.[5]

Civilian career[edit]

As a traditional reservist, McNeil was able to develop a civilian career while continuing to serve in the U.S. Air Force. McNeil established himself in the private and public sectors with time spent starting a series of diversity programs, working in computer sales for IBM, working for the Bankers Trust in New York City as a commercial banker, and as a stockbroker for E.F. Hutton in Fayetteville, North Carolina.[9] McNeil joined the Federal Aviation Administration, where he served as assistant division manager of the administration's Eastern Region Flight Standards Division and the manager of the New York Flight Standards District Office.[10] In 2002, McNeil retired from the Federal Aviation Administration, after serving for over 15 years.

Civilian honors and legacy[edit]

McNeil holds four honorary doctorates; a Doctor of Philosophy degree from his alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University in 1991; a Doctor of Laws degree from St. John's University in 1998; a Doctor of Humanities from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 2010;[5][11] and a Doctor of Laws degree from Molloy College in 2015.

In 2002, North Carolina A&T commissioned a statue to be sculpted honoring McNeil, along with the three other members of the A&T four; Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. (later known as Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond. In addition, the four men each have residence halls named for them on the university campus.[12] In 2010, McNeil was the recipient of the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal from the Smithsonian Institution.[13]

Personal life[edit]

McNeil is married to Ina McNeil (nee Brown). Brown, an accomplished Indigenous quilt maker, is of Lakota descent and the great-great granddaughter of Chief Sitting Bull.[11] The two met while he was stationed in South Dakota, while working with an organization that exposed discriminatory housing practices in the state. The two were married in 1967, and together have 5 children.[5]


  1. ^ a b "The Greensboro Four" Archived 2011-01-25 at the Wayback Machine, North Carolina Museum of History. Retrieved November 26, 2010.
  2. ^ a b "Joseph McNeil Biography". v2.0. 23 January 2007. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  3. ^ a b "The A&T Four". The F.D. Bluford Library • North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Archived from the original on December 17, 2014. Retrieved 12 June 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Oral History Interview with Joseph McNeil by William Chafe :: Civil Rights Greensboro". Retrieved 2020-03-05.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Major General Joseph A. McNeil". United States Air Force. Retrieved 12 June 2014.
  6. ^ a b c d "Oral history interview with Joseph McNeil by Eugene Pfaff :: Civil Rights Greensboro". Retrieved 2020-03-05.
  7. ^ a b COMMENTARY: THE WITNESS FOR JUSTICE BEGINS AT HOME. (2020, February 6). States News Service, p. NA. Retrieved from
  8. ^ Bilyeu, S. (2010, January 18). 1960: Sitting down to take a stand: when four students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., 50 years ago, they helped re-ignite the civil rights movement. New York Times Upfront, 142(8), 24+. Retrieved from
  9. ^ a b "Independent Lens . FEBRUARY ONE . The Greensboro Four | PBS". Retrieved 2020-03-05.
  10. ^ "Joseph McNeil Biography". Civil Rights Digital Library. Digital Library of Georgia. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  11. ^ a b "UNC Wilmington to Award Honorary Doctorate to Joseph A. McNeil during Spring Commencement". University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  12. ^ "A&T History". The F.D. Bluford Library • North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Archived from the original on 9 October 2021. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  13. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (5 February 2010). "50 years later, Greensboro Four get Smithsonian award for civil rights actions". The Washington Post. Retrieved 20 June 2014.

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