Joseph McNeil was one of the four African American college students who initiated the sit-in protest at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. McNeil was born on March 25, 1942, in Wilmington, North Carolina. At the time of the protest, he was a student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where he was studying engineering.
McNeil, along with Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. (later known as Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond, decided to stage the sit-in protest as a way of challenging the racial segregation that was prevalent in their community. The four students were inspired by the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and they believed that peaceful direct action was the best way to bring about change.
McNeil and the other three students were refused service when they sat down at Woolworth’s lunch counter, but they refused to leave and stayed at the counter until the store closed. The next day, they returned to the store with more students and continued their sit-in protest. The sit-in protest continued for several days and soon spread throughout the South, sparking a new phase of the Civil Rights Movement.
After the Greensboro sit-ins, McNeil became a prominent civil rights activist and organizer. He served in the United States Air Force for more than 20 years, including service in the Vietnam War, before retiring as a colonel in 1987. He later worked as a private consultant and as an executive at various companies, and he remained active in community organizations and civil rights causes throughout his life.
McNeil passed away on September 29, 2020, at the age of 78. He is remembered as a hero of the Civil Rights Movement and a symbol of the power of nonviolent resistance to bring about change.