MICHIGAN CITY | George Neagu was right in the thick of the 1960s civil rights movement taking part in marches, fighting segregation and even had a cross burned in front of his Northwest Indiana home as a white man standing up for equal treatment of African-Americans.
The 85-year-old Michigan City resident also was labeled a communist, something that confused him given so much of his focus was on upholding the rights and promises outlined in the Constitution.
He was on a first-name basis with many activists and celebrities at the time, including slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called a friend.
After his assassination, Neagu stood for two hours outside Ebenezer Church in Atlanta to pay his respects to King with thousands of others who later were part of a three-mile procession to Morehouse College for a public goodbye service.
Five decades later, gone are some of the stereotypes and other unfair treatment. There's even an African-American in the White House with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.
"It's nice," said Neagu, who added, "We still have a ways to go."
Neagu was recently designated a charter member of the still-under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
He was informed in a letter by museum director Lonnie Bunch, who described Neagu as an "early visionary" and someone who saw a need for the museum and "took action."
Neagu was in several leadership roles in areas like human rights and housing in Chicago, Gary, South Bend and in the state of Michigan throughout the tension-filled civil rights movement.
He said it wasn't easy being white and standing up for the rights of blacks during a period of hate that included a cross being set ablaze outside his Gary home and occasionally finding temporary shelter elsewhere due to threats against his life.
He also found himself involved in marches and even a riot complete with firebombs while in South Bend as that city's first director of human rights.
"You never knew what was going to happen," Neagu said.
Neagu said standing up for "the underdog" is something he learned while growing up in Gary from his mother, a Romanian immigrant, and stepfather, a steel mill foreman upset whenever the jobs of laborers were threatened after joining a union.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Neagu said he never imagined the country at least during his lifetime ever having a black president.
Words are difficult to describe his wide range of emotions the night Obama gave his acceptance speech after the 2008 presidential election.
"That was a very moving, memorable night," said Neagu.
Neagu also has helped advance the rights of all races and has taken the lead on issues such as higher wages and safer working conditions.
He's currently involved in a budding effort to raise money to begin sending a child of Polish descent from the Michigan City area each year off to college and is president of his neighborhood association.
"I was always enamored by the idea of freedom and justice for all," said Neagu.
Construction of the museum began in 2012. It is scheduled to open in 2015 in on the National Mall in Washington, according to a Smithsonian website.