Raised in Greenwood, Mississippi
In many communities it was not unusual for SNCC organizers to encounter exceptionally brave local people, sometimes visible and sometimes hidden in plain sight. The Greene family was one of the bravest in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the family gave SNCC’s Greenwood campaign its earliest and strongest local activists.
Dewey Greene, Sr. was a house painter and wallpaper contractor with some college education. He often refused to back down when whites verbally or physically tried to intimidate him. Once, when his young daughter Freddie almost fell off a carnival merry-go-round, Mr. Green jumped on it to save her. The manager thought he was trying to get a free ride and threatened to hit him with a large wrench. Dewey challenged him to do it, but the man backed down.
When 22-year old Dewey Greene, Jr. returned home from the Navy in 1962, he decided to enroll in the University of Mississippi. It was 1963, and the state was already roiled with anger because of James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the university. Soon enough, the Greenes began receiving threats from many Greenwood residents, including the mayor. Dewey, Sr. suddenly couldn’t get work anywhere, and the one white family who paid him to paint their home woke the next morning with a black ring painted all around it. The backlash against his son’s application forced Dewey, Sr. into retirement and reliant on Social Security. As it turned out, this gave him time to commit himself to the Movement, and in 1964, he was a MFDP delegate to Democratic Party’s national convention.
Another son, George, and his sister, Freddie, were both actively involved with SNCC’s voter registration efforts in the Delta. While high school students, they attended mass meetings, distributed food and clothing to people denied food aid because of the voter registration campaign. They went door-to-door canvassing for potential voters. George became a full-time SNCC worker, working in Southwest Mississippi and Alabama. His inclination to talk back when he knew his rights were being violated resulted in brief stints in forced labor and prison.
In February 1964, George suffered minor injuries when he was shot at a Jackson demonstration. The following summer, Freddie, then a student at Dillard University, went to McComb, and she, George, and Curtis Hayes survived the bombing of the Freedom House.
By this time, the Greene family was accustomed to violent reaction to their efforts at change. Shortly after Dewey, Jr. applied to Ole Miss, shotgun blasts shattered windows in their home, one the bedroom window where a niece lay sleeping. Dewey Greene, Sr. called the police and told them to collect the bodies of anyone else who came shooting. As he put it later, “The white people of this state shot me into politics. And to get me out, they’ll have to shoot me out.”
Dewey, Sr. later elaborated on this commitment, explaining, “[W]hen they shot in my home they didn’t dampen nothing … Dewey, Jr. was the only one then active in civil rights work. I have seven children. When you shot in there you got six more.”
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Cheryl Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).