TOWN OF HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – There was a moving honor Tuesday for a civil rights icon and pioneer who calls Long Island home.
Greeted like a rock star in his adopted hometown, 75-year-old Gen. Joseph A. McNeil was honored by a community overwhelmed with emotion.
“I had tears in my eyes, too,” he told the crowd.
First, the street he lives on was renamed in his honor. Then two hours later, the local elementary school.
Students have been studying all year about the living legend in their midst.
McNeil was a founding member of the Greensboro Four, who led the 1960s sit-in at the segregated Woolworth Lunch Counter in North Carolina.
“We’re extremely proud of the fact that you sir, are a national hero,” Mayor of Hempstead Village Don Ryan said.
While a 17-year-old college freshman, McNeil and three classmates were denied service at the segregated lunch counter but remained in their seats for hours, despite threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
“Anger, pride, intense emotion and a faith that goodness will win out in the end and prevail,” he told McLogan.
Their peaceful protest continued for days, igniting a civil rights movement nationwide and resulting in the desegregation of Woolworth’s.
McNeil later became a major general in the United States Air Force.
“Our country needs all of us to work together,” he said.
“For young people to meet a legend, that’s a memory they need to cherish and hold onto,” 17-year-old Andrew Culbreath said.
Peace, love and respect – despite his age, McNeil says his fight for justice continues.
“If it’s not working today, I will be back tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe we’ll make it work better tomorrow.”
Having a street and school renamed for him during his lifetime is an honor the civil rights pioneer says humbles him to his core.