March 26, 2023

The Year Young Activists Changed the Course of American History

In the early 1960s, America was a nation divided. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and tensions were running high between blacks and whites across the country. In 1961, a group of young activists helped change that. On February 1st of that year, a small group of black college students walked into an all-white diner near Tallahassee called Woolworth’s and sat down at one of the lunch counter stools to order some food. What happened next would end up changing America forever.

At the time, Woolworth’s policy was that black customers were only allowed to purchase food and drink from a separate “Negro” counter in the store. A number of store employees refused to serve the students, but they stayed seated until closing time. The next day, four more students returned and did the same thing. It took several months, but the sit-ins finally forced Woolworth’s to desegregate its lunch counters for good. By 1965, all of the major department stores had followed suit.

Although this was an amazing victory, it came at a terrible cost. One of the first four protestors who’d sat down at that Woolworth’s counter was a young man named Joseph McNeil. Joe was an especially brave civil rights activist who’d risked his life multiple times before that sit-in just to help provide equal opportunities for black people across the South.

But it wasn’t just equality that motivated him. It was also revenge. Not against white people or anyone else, but against society itself for taking something away from him that he’d wanted to have his entire life.

Before going out and fighting against segregation, Joe McNeil had been a quiet nerd in high school who was obsessed with science fiction, math, and music. One of his main hobbies was building speaker cabinets in the garage behind his house. To make extra money for parts, Joe would buy used records at thrift stores and then sell the ones he didn’t like to his classmates.

One day, Joe bought an album by The Dave Brubeck Quartet called Time Out. It was one of the first jazz albums that I’d ever heard, and it quickly became my favorite thing in the world. Every time I listen to it now, I’m instantly taken back to that time in my life when everything was just coming together. The way the songs float from one to another is so delicate and beautiful, but at the same time they have this frantic energy running through them.

But what really made me fall in love with this album was Joe’s dedication to making sure I heard it. At any given moment, he would have 5 or 6 copies of Time Out sitting in his room just waiting for someone to buy one. He’d even have the liner notes memorized so that if you asked him about any artist or song on the album, he’d be able give you all sorts of information about where they came from and why they were important.

But as much as I loved everything Joe and his family were doing for me, the more I got to know him, the more I realized that he wasn’t happy at all. His parents had divorced when he was in the 4th grade, and his dad had since remarried three times. He was bullied in school for being nerdy, loud, tall, and black, and his mom struggled to make ends meet on her salary as a nurse.