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Maj. Gen. (retired) Joseph A. McNeil, an American hero

As a young college student in 1960, McNeil (far left) and three of his friends staged a protest at a lunch counter inside a Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C. They refused to move when they were told the facility did not serve blacks. Their protest quickly spread to lunch counters in 54 cities in nine states.

As a young college student in 1960, McNeil (far left) and three of his friends staged a protest at a lunch counter inside a Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C. They refused to move when they were told the facility did not serve blacks. Their protest quickly spread to lunch counters in 54 cities in nine states.

Retired Maj. Gen. Joseph A. McNeil

Retired Maj. Gen. Joseph A. McNeil

Citizen Airman/Feb. 2014 --  The young college student sitting at the far left in the accompanying photo is Joe McNeil, and he's an American hero.

At about 4:30 in the afternoon on Monday, Feb.1, 1960, McNeil and three of his buddies sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth's in downtown Greensboro, N.C., and asked the waitress for a cup of coffee. "We don't serve Negroes here," she said before asking them to move down to the standup snack bar at one end of the long L-shaped counter. As everyone at the time knew, the seats were for whites. The snack bar was for blacks.

The four young men didn't move. In fact, they stayed in their seats until after the Woolworth's closed for the day. Then they came back the next day. ... and the next ... and the next ... and the next. On Feb. 2, the "Greensboro Four" were joined in their protest by 23 men and four women. The next day, the number of protesters swelled to 80. By the fourth day, there were 300 people gathered around the "whites only" Woolworth lunch counter, vowing to return every day until they were served.

As word of what these brave young men had done spread, so did the movement they had started. Soon, there were protests at lunch counters in 54 cities in nine states. The Greensboro sit-ins continued for five months until the F.W. Woolworth Co. finally agreed to integrate its lunch counters.

With a simple act of courage, Joe McNeil had helped spark the civil rights movement in the United States. He is an American hero for what he did at that North Carolina lunch counter, but he is also a hero for volunteering to put his life on the line for a country that once treated him as a second-class citizen.

After graduating from North Carolina A&T State University in 1963, McNeil was commissioned in the Air Force and became a navigator on the KC-135 Stratotanker air refueling/cargo aircraft. He served valiantly during the Vietnam War and joined the Air Force Reserve in 1969. He proudly served in the Reserve for 31 years, retiring as the mobilization assistant to the Air Force Reserve Command‚Äącommander with the rank of major general in 2000.

As the nation celebrates African American History Month, the Air Force Reserve would like to take the time to salute Joseph A. McNeil, a true American hero.