Twin sisters Sharena (left) and Malia Johnson, 17, of Lawrenceville put together a civil rights family heritage project they presented as Girl Scouts in 2011. (The notebook contains the historical documents they presented to supplement their project.) Their family has a place in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Connecting with civil rights history

How Atlanta-area Girl Scout project sheds light on Mississippi family’s activism

Dewey Greene Sr., son Dewey Jr., daughter Freddie and another son George aren’t as marquee civil rights movement names as Atlanta’s own the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, John Lewis or Julian Bond. But they, like so many other unsung heroes of the movement, stood up on the right side of history in their native Greenwood, Miss., in the Mississippi Delta.

Today, the Greene family has a place in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which opened at the end of last year, and Lawrenceville resident Angela Greene-Johnson couldn’t be more pleased that her grandfather, uncles and aunts are getting the recognition they deserve.

Back in 2011, Greene-Johnson’s twin girls, Malia Johnson and Sharena Johnson, now 17, shared that history for a family heritage project assigned by their Girl Scout troop.

And now her daughters’ project complements her family’s presence in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum at the Mississippi Department of Archives.

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Earlier in the year, a friend of Greene-Johnson’s cousin mentioned seeing the family in the museum. Her cousin, a teacher, organized a class trip to the museum and shared the pictures on Facebook. After learning of this, Greene-Johnson contacted the Mississippi Department of Archives and made a donation that includes the girls’ original project on construction paper. That project, Greene-Johnson shares, forever links the girls to their family’s civil rights legacy.

Angela Greene-Johnson connected her daughters, Sharena (left) and Malia Johnson, both 17, with information about her father’s family in Mississippi when the twins worked on their civil rights family heritage project in 2011. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: For the AJC

Greene-Johnson wasn’t always aware of her paternal family’s strong civil rights history. Although she grew up in Atlanta, Greene-Johnson, who attended Frederick Douglass High School with current City Council member Michael Julian Bond, son of Julian Bond, had no clue that their families had crossed paths. She later found out that her aunt Freddie Greene worked closely with Julian Bond at the Atlanta headquarters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

“I didn’t know that history about my family,” she admits. “… It was only as I got older and I developed more of a relationship with my father (Wendell Greene) and he began to talk more about some of the things that happened in the family that I really started learning a lot.”

What she learned was mind-blowing. “My grandfather, Dewey Greene Sr., was (a) president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for Leflore County, Miss. He was also a delegate for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (founded by Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Bob Moses in 1964), and he represented his state at the National Democratic Convention in 1964 in Atlantic City, N.J.,” she shares.

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The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party emerged in 1964 to challenge the state’s recognized Democratic Party that had long disenfranchised black Mississippians. Numerous attempts were made not to acknowledge and credential its representatives. King spoke to President Lyndon Johnson and Congress in support of them. During the televised credentials committee proceedings, Hamer offered a chilling testimony about the brutal retaliation she faced for daring to register to vote.

Johnson-Greene learned about the retaliation her family also faced. After her uncle Dewey Jr. attempted to enroll in the University of Mississippi shortly after James Meredith, her family was targeted. According to the Digital SNCC Gateway, windows were shot out at the Greene home. Her grandfather, or “Big Daddy,” as he was known, set the tone for his children and supported his namesake fully. The virulent prejudice and bigotry that blocked his income and forced him to rely mainly on Social Security only gave Dewey Sr. more time for his civil rights activism.

“His house was like the headquarters for all the civil rights people so Stokely Carmichael, Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, H. Rap Brown, all those people, when they came to Greenwood, they stayed at my grandparents’ house,” she beams. That is what her mother, Barbara Greene Hurd, who also grew up in Greenwood, shared with her. And for the project, she was then sharing with her girls.

And she had proof, too, from the summer of 1999 when she spent time with her father, Wendell, back in Greenwood. “We were in my Big Daddy’s house and (my father) was sitting in this chair and there was this stack of all these papers (nearby),” she recalls. “That stuff had been sitting there since the ’60s!”

When her father asked if she wanted these papers, Greene-Johnson said yes. In addition to using these family artifacts, Malia and Sharena spoke to their great-aunt Freddie Greene, who described her personal experiences registering to vote as well as other general details of her and their family’s activism.

Sharena Johnson, 17, of Lawrenceville holds an essay she wrote for a civil rights family heritage project when she was a young Girl Scout. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: For the AJC

When the twins, then around 9 or 10, presented their heritage project to their Girl Scout troop, it wasn’t embraced the way their mother had hoped. Not long after, Johnson-Greene says, she received an email from the twins’ troop leaders in Snellville essentially expelling the girls, citing “their disinterest in the troop activities” as a primary reason. Not accepting her twins’ dismissal as coincidental, Greene-Johnson says she made several attempts to address the issue directly with several Girl Scout factions. Then, she sued the Girl Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta, the troop and its two leaders at the time, doing almost all of the filing herself.

In a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta Council said that “Ms. Johnson’s claims against Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta were found to be without merit and were dismissed with prejudice by the United States District Court, Northern District of Georgia in November 2013.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the original judgments in 2015. Greene-Johnson details her legal experience in her self-published book, “Unnecessary Roughness,” which is also available at the Mississippi Department of Archives.

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The Greene Family Civil Rights Papers, according to an email from Laura Anne Heller, the Acquisitions and Collections coordinator at the Mississippi Department of Archives who handles family gifts, “consists of two publications by Council of Federated Organizations (COFO); a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) publication titled ‘A Chronology of Violence and Intimidation in Mississippi since 1961’; and materials concerning twin sisters descended from the Mississippi Greene family who presented to their Girl Scouts troop about relatives fighting in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and the following court case.”

“A few pages with handwritten stories by the twin girls” on construction paper from the original project accompany the publications from COFO and SNCC, which Heller believes “provide accurate context to these historical events. The items also bring information otherwise lost in home fires, floods, or forgotten importance.”

Today Malia and Sharena, who attend Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, don’t recall much about their project. “I kind of remember it but not all that well because I was in elementary school. I’m a senior in high school now,” the future lawyer or journalist Sharena explains. Malia, who is determined to become an NFL trainer, remembers even less but does mention traveling to Greenwood for her grandfather Wendell Greene’s funeral.

Greene-Johnson hopes to visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Department of Archives with her girls soon to see their family’s contribution in this context. “This whole experience not only taught me a lot about my family, but it taught me a lot about myself,” she says. And, one day, it will also teach Malia and Sharena. Whenever they decide they want to know more about their family legacy, they won’t have to stumble upon papers in an old house.

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