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Gentleman Joe A Civil Rights Hero
February 12, 2014 was the 105th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization has a long and distinguished history for fighting for equality for all Americans. I want to tell you a story about one man who became a part of that history. However, I am not going to focus on the event that most people know him by; that story has been told many times. Instead, I am going to talk about the man I have come to know. Specifically it is about my interactions with the man, before I knew about the legend.
To help set the stage for the rest of the article, a little background information about me is necessary. I grew up in small towns in North Dakota. From kindergarten through my sophomore year in high school I lived in a town called Arthur, population 314. My last two years of school were spent in Ellendale, ND, which had roughly 2000 residents. Growing up during the 1960’s and 1970’s, I had heard of the Civil Rights Movement. Events like the Montgomery Bus Strike, the Lunch Counter Sit Ins, and other demonstrations had made it into my civics and history lessons. To be honest, I did not understand the impact of these events, and they were mixed in with the Vietnam protests. Except for a few notables like Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, I did not know the names of the players. Even these few people whose names made it into the textbooks, I knew very little about them as people but rather just historical figures. It is not that I did not care about the rights of others; just nothing in my world at that time would allow me to cognitively associate with the events happening outside of my small town. I had no frame of reference to work from.
At the start of my senior year of high school in 1979, I joined the North Dakota Army National Guard, and the following June I departed for basic training at Ft Leonard Wood MO. After a failed attempt at college in 1982, I enlisted for active duty in the Army; and I was off to Ft. Knox, KY. Being assigned to these two bases placed me in a very different environment from where I grew up. It was the first time I became aware of active discrimination and hatred. The world I grew up in was very heterogeneous; the county that was my home had very little diversity. As such, there was no real interaction between different groups. I am not saying it was a bad place to grow up; I have very fond memories of my childhood, but there was no diversity, so there were no examples of active hatred. While I was stationed in KY, a local high school outside of Ft. Knox played host to the KKK, who had won the right to speak there. The dynamic of negative human interaction that was playing out in front of me started to change how I viewed the world.
As I started to pay attention to the experiences presented to me, I began to gain a new appreciation and understanding of the history of our country. That knowledge helped to shape my military career. In 1986, I made the jump from Army to Air Force Reserve. Later in 1997 I received my commission as a Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) Advisor. In 1998, I was on a temporary assignment (which later turned permanent) at Headquarter Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), Robins Air Force Base GA. There I was placed in charge of the Command’s MEO program. In addition to providing support to the 3 Numbered Air Forces and 41 Wings in the Command, my section supplied the administrative backing to a little known committee. The Human Resources Development Council (HRDC) was the Command’s attempt at a diversity steering group. They had no budget, membership on the council was voluntary, and they had no authority to make policy. They were strictly an advisory group.
The Council was chaired by a Major General (Maj Gen) McNeil. My first meeting with the General began uneventfully; I was sitting at my desk, studying some bureaucratic paperwork that had been dumped on me to review. The Colonel in charge of the section says, “Lieutenant (Lt) lets go meet the General you will be supporting.” Now being a 2nd Lt, I was respectful to all General Officers. I may not have liked some of the people who held that rank, but I always respected the position. Almost instantly I had respect for the man first and the rank second. Other senior officers referred to him as a “real American hero”. He was a two star general with a chest full of medals; so I assumed that the reference was to something he had done during his career that earned him the praise. Frankly, I was not interested in his history; I was assigned to support him in his current role. What I saw in the present was impressive.
The HRDC was created because there was a noted lack of diversity in the senior leaders of the Command. Aircrew, especially pilots, represented the pool that the senior leadership was selected from. In the late 1990’s those who wore a flight suit and sat in the front of the plane were primarily white males. Being the Air Force Reserve there were already many programs focused on aircrew recruitment and retention. Often forgetting that it takes more than a pilot to get an airplane off the ground. As the Chair of the HRDC Maj Gen McNeil made sure that the focus was not just on female and minority aircrew issues. He had a broader vision, which was to reach out to all airmen regardless of rank, career field, race, or gender. He was seeking to build the talent he saw in people. Always keeping in mind the goal to increase the diversity of the Command and it’s leadership, but he recognized the need to develop everyone. He had one of the sharpest minds I had ever encountered. He could look beyond the moment to see the implication and relationship of actions. He had a memory like nothing I had ever seen. Even when he was upset, I did not see him get mad. Primarily what impressed me the most was he showed everyone the same level of respect. He was always a gentleman.
In December of 1999, I moved on to another assignment. However, I maintained a relationship with the General. He continued to mentor me, even taking the time to review and critique my graduate thesis. Yet I still did not know much of his past. I knew that he entered the military straight out of college and served in Vietnam. One of his assignments brought him to Ellsworth AFB, SD, where he met his wife. I had in fact crossed paths with one of his sons in the summer of 1998 and did not know it. It was while acting as a liaison officer between AFRC and the Native American tribes of North and South Dakota. That summer I spent a great deal of time on the Standing Rock Reservation where his son was living and serving as the President of the local college.
One day in early 2000, I was visiting a civil rights museum, looking at the exhibit on the Lunch Counter Sit-ins that started on February 2, 1960 in the sleepy town of Greensboro, NC. As I looked at the picture of the four young men who started a quiet revolution, I recognized the name of my mentor on a very young face. Everyone assumed that I knew his story before that moment in time. Very few people know how long it took me to figure it out. However, I am happy that I did not have the knowledge of his history until that moment. I got to know the man before I was introduced to the legend. I knew a man who was an intellectual, who cared about the human condition and did it with a wicked sense of humor. This was a person who was doing everything in his power to change the human condition. It is interesting to note, that while the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins were a defining moment in American history, it was not his final achievement. Through out his life he continued to build upon that moment.
I am not taking anything away from his cohorts that were with him on that cold February morning, nor am I downplaying the importance of the thousands of civil rights leaders. I am applicative of the contributions of the millions (regardless of race, gender, religion…) whose contributions became a part of the fabric of our country. But I did not know them; I know of some of their contributions. The point I am trying to make is simple; it is easy to forget that the people we read about in history books are real people. They are viewed as historical figures that are depicted without human characteristics.
One definition of Legend is: “a person whose fame or notoriety makes him the sources of exaggerated or romanticized tales or exploits.” (Dictionary.com) I am not sure how my perspective of Joseph McNeil would have changed if I had known about his role in Greensboro; it may have created a barrier in my mind preventing me from knowing the man. Speaking to a legend comes with baggage, preconceived notions of what or who the person is. Where speaking to a man there comes an understanding of the person. I have observed people who were interacting with the legend and not the man. Generally they are very respectful, polite, and with a big grin on their face. While nodding their heads in agreement with what he is saying, his words are not being heard. They are meeting a hero, who exists at a fixed point in time. They are not listening to the man who is in front of them who has decades more experience then the 19 year old who help to organize and start a sit-in movement. In this case I have found the man to be much more interesting then the legend.
Societies tend to place legends on pedestals, which are precarious places to be in. There are people who want the legend to remain unchanged for all eternity, while others are trying to tear them down. Once being placed on the pedestal it is hard to step out of the limelight and become a normal human being again. The lunch counter sit-in movement was an important event for this country. It took a simple dignity, ordering a cup of coffee, and highlighted a national tragedy. For many people that would be the end of their book, but it was only a chapter. It represented six months or so of pages out of his novel. My personal belief is that people will learn more when they stop talking to the legend and start to listen to the life lessons of the man.
Remember that behind each legend is a person. While we cannot meet all historical figures (since time travel still is not possible) we do have access to some of the history that will humanize them. Understanding the human often gives us greater access to the motivation behind the acts.
This short article is not the end of the story for Joe McNeil rather it is just another page in his book. To this day, it is his mission to remain active in the support of young people. He is a highly sought after speaker, talking to groups from school age students to military organizations. His message is one of respect, respect for yourself and for others. He is too busy being a man to worry about being a legend.
In writing this article it occurs to me how little I know of the people in my life. I have had the honor to work with people who worked hard at effecting change in the world. I know some of their stories, but most I only know the points were our life’s path intersected. Unfortunately, I do not have the time or the energy to investigate all their stories. I cannot even honor them by listing all their names here because the list would be too long and I would be afraid of leaving people off it. I do recognize that I have been lucky to have met so many interesting people in my life.
legend. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/legend (accessed: February 16, 2014).
Figure 1: Founder’s Day. http://detroitnaacp.org/happy-105th-founders-day-naacp// (Accessed February 19, 2014)
Figure 2: Major General Joseph McNeil. http://www.af.mil/AboutUs/Biographies/Display/tabid/225/Article/108287/major-general-joseph-a-mcneil.aspx. December 2000 (Accessed February 19, 2014)
Figure 3: Jibreel Khazan (Ezell Blair Jr.), Franklin Eugene McCain, Joseph Alfred McNeil, and David Leinail Richmond. http://www.sitins.com/key_players.shtml. (Accessed March 4, 2014)
© 2014 Mark Monroe