By 1010 WINS’ Larry Mullins
I can’t even get into the beginning of this, without first telling you about the “ending” to this story.
Dr. Joseph McNeil says he went into a coffee shop, and the coffee and apple pie was so doggone bad, that he says “I’ll never go back in here to eat.” Ha ha hardy har har!!! That place almost got him killed. But more importantly it set off a movement, by which black people, white people, brown people, purple people, green people (you get the point) can sit down and have a cup of coffee anywhere they please, without backlash.
McNeil is one of the Greensboro Four, four black college students, who say all they wanted to do, on their way home from Christmas break, was to get a snack. And the further they went south (from New York City), the more segregated it got.
McNeil says they were on a bus, and came to a snack stand, where he ordered a hot dog, and the lady looked at him like he was from planet Mars. And meeting with him, at his home in Hempstead for this assignment, you’d never know that this is the guy who took that experience “and then made history, with a sit-in that resonated around the world!” Dr. Mack (we’re big buddies now so I can call him that) was so humble and so gracious to us. He’s told the story a thousand times, but he says he loves telling it, because it lets people know (particularly young people) what somebody else had to do, to move things forward, in the search for racial equality.
So he and his friends got back to college (they were at North Carolina A&T), and came up with a crazy plan to go to a Woolworth’s there in Greensboro, sit down, and demand food! Yeah right. In the 60’s south? Doc says even his own mother asked him (once all the dust settled), “Boy what in the hell were you thinking?” You could have gotten yo’self killed! So anyway, he had us just totally gripped… almost sitting on his knee with our mouths gaped wide open in amazement, as he rattled off what happened. He says they sat at the counter, ordered food, and were told to leave. When they didn’t he says the management called the cops. Uh oh. He says one little cop stood over him with a blackjack, just waiting to crush his skull, as soon as he got the word. But the manager dismissed them as stupid black kids who didn’t know what they were doing, and acting as if they wouldn’t come back. Guess again.
The day after, they were back, with 16 more people, asking for coffee and apple pie. So by now, I’m thinking this must be one helluva slice of pie, to keep going back into that place. And then the following days, weeks, months, the protesters kept growing in numbers. And get this; the protesters were now black AND white kids, who were sick and tired of the old Jim Crowe laws. Well as the story goes, by the end of the summer, that Woolworth’s (in fact the entire chain) had become desegregated, after protests spread all over the country and after the media caught wind of it. McNeil was a hero. But to let him tell it, he didn’t do anything that anybody else wouldn’t have done. What do you think you would have done?
Being in his house felt like being at my mom’s house down in Florida; no pretense, no fluff; just “home”. And he doesn’t walk around with a chip on his shoulder either, having gone thru the turbulent 60’s. And he reminded me that they did all this without any violence. He thought there would be, when a white lady walked up to him during one of their sit-in days. But he told me that she surprised the heck out of him; he thought she was going to chastise him, but instead she told him that she was disappointed, because they hadn’t staged their sit-ins much sooner. Wow. McNeil says that changed everything.
I could have stayed and talked with Doc for a month. He’s one of those guys who are so charming and so accommodating (he’s in his 70s and wanted to drive us around and take us to lunch). I asked him “do your neighbors know who you are and what you’ve done?” He says “maybe, but I don’t make a big deal about it.”
You know what, truly, as humble as he is, who better to have sat down at the Woolworth’s counter? I don’t know what I would have done. And then going back to get the pie and the coffee after the place was desegregated…
Thank you Doc, for making it such that I can go into a restaurant and turned down apple pie too… if I choose.