Joseph Alfred McNeil was born in 1942 in Wilmington, North Carolina. He graduated from Williston Senior High School in 1959 and matriculated at North Carolina A&T State University on a full scholarship. McNeil and three other A&T freshmen, now known as the “Greensboro Four,” are credited with initiating the sit-in movement when they sat down at the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro on February 1, 1960 and requested service. McNeil then became involved in the formation of the Student Executive Committee for Justice, a group created in response to the sit-ins. He also participated in negotiations between student protestors, Woolworth’s management, and the Human Relations Commission. McNeil, who was also in ROTC, graduated in 1963 with a degree in engineering physics and was immediately commissioned by the U.S. Air Force. In 1967, McNeil married the former Ina Brown, whom he met while stationed in South Dakota. He also served as a navigator off the Vietnamese Coast during six years of active duty in the Air Force.
After working briefly as an investment banker, McNeil joined the Federal Aviation Administration but remained in the Air Force Reserve. In 2000, he retired from the Air Force Reserve with the rank of major general. Two years later he also retired from the Federal Aviation Administration, which he served for over 15 years as head of the Flight Standards Division for the Eastern Region in Jamaica, New York.
Following retirement, McNeil remained involved in numerous civic activities and community organizations in Hempstead, New York. McNeil and the other members of the Greensboro Four received honorary doctorates in 1994 from North Carolina A&T State University for their role in the civil rights movement. McNeil also received an honorary doctorate in 1998 from the St. Johns University.