Charlie Greene lines up for a race while competing for the University of Nebraska. (University of Nebraska)
Charlie Greene jumped into the national spotlight when he won the 100-yard dash in a high school all-star meet. He set a world record in that discipline to capture his third straight NCAA championship. He did the unprecedented and wore shades while competing. He won every 100-yard and 100-meter dash he entered from his junior year of high school until a year after college. He tied a 100-meter world record during the “Night of Speed.”
A man who was born in Pine Bluff did all that.
“If it weren’t for segregation, I probably would have stayed in Pine Bluff and gone to college in Pine Bluff,” Greene said. “My mother told me, ‘I had to get you out of the cotton curtain to give you a better life.’”
The life Greene has led for 68 years is colorful. His story is one of sacrifice, confidence and success with a few setbacks along the way. Just as important to him as his athletic success is the start his young mother gave him.
Bertha Johnson was an 11th-grader at Coleman High School when she gave birth to Charles Edward Green on March 21, 1944. (Charlie would add the last “e” in his name in high school because he wanted to be different.) Determined to leave the city, she moved to Chicago and took Charlie with him when he was 6 months old and the following January took a job as a domestic worker near the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state. In 1946, mother and son headed a little farther west to Seattle, where Johnson became a barber and took two part-time cleaning jobs.
At age 5, Charlie discovered life down south was a little different from the Northwest when he visited his grandmother in Pine Bluff. It wasn’t like Seattle, where he played with children of other races.
“I thought that’s the way the world was supposed to be until I went down to Pine Bluff,” he said. “My mother said I was not to drink from the fountain or use bathrooms labeled ‘For White People’.”
When he learned many homes had outhouses rather than bathrooms, young Charlie said, ”No, I’m not going to be living here.”
He started running track as a fourth-grader and competed at O’Dea, a Catholic boys school in Seattle. He won the state 100-yard championships his junior and senior years and added a 200-yard title as a senior.
Shortly after graduation from high school in 1963, Greene accepted an invitation to the Golden West Invitational, a prestigious high school all-star meet held yearly to this day in the Sacramento, Calif., area. After he won the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds, he was ranked the top sprinter in the nation and he raked in offers from schools such as Arizona State, San Jose State and Nebraska.
His hometown university, however, overlooked Greene during a time of an unstable racial climate on campus. It was for that reason his mother talked him out of attending Washington.
“The University of Washington coach at the time didn’t think I was good enough,” Greene said.
Greene selected Nebraska and was paired with a black roommate from Pine Bluff he would visit the town with. NCAA rules at the time prevented freshmen from competing on varsity athletic teams at the time, but Greene was still considered a favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team.
As a freshman, Greene competed in the 60-yard dash at the AAU national indoor championship meet in New York’s Madison Square Garden. He finished second with a time of 6.0 seconds, just 0.1 behind Bob Hayes.
At the Olympic trials, Greene suffered a worse defeat. He pulled a hamstring during the meet and got sixth place in the 100 meters, finishing behind five runners who never beat him before.
“I remember vividly being given my ticket to go from L.A. back to Lincoln, Nebraska,” Greene said. “No one cares how good you are or your press clippings or what you did in the past. They only care about what you do when you get to the line.”
Luckily for Greene, he impressed each outing as a Cornhusker. In each of his three varsity seasons, he won the 60-yard indoor and 100-yard outdoor national championships. While at Nebraska, he began to wear prescription sunglasses during competition, at the time an unprecedented move, but one that set him apart from others.
He also developed a rivalry with Dumas-born Jim Hines, who was raised in Oakland, Calif., and competed at Texas Southern. Greene beat Hines in their first five meetings.
“I did not dislike Jimmy,” Greene said. “I didn’t like him because he tried to beat me in the 100.”
Their rivalry heightened by 1968, a year after Greene earned his bachelor’s degree from Nebraska. On June 20 that year, they competed in the AAU track and field championships in Sacramento, running three races in 4 hours in 92-degree weather, as Greene recalled.
In the first wave of heats, six men including Greene equaled the world record of 10.0 seconds in the 100 meters. In the semifinals, Hines and Ronnie Ray Smith lowered the mark to 9.9 seconds in the same race. Greene matched that in his heat.
In the final, Greene beat Hines for the victory in a photo finish, turning in another 10.0 run. The night has become known to track historians as the “Night of Speed.”
Hines finally got his revenge over in the Olympic trials, handing Greene his first loss in a race in four years.
The defeat motivated Greene going into the Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
“It was the preeminent thought,” he said, “and I was completely healthy in 1968.”
With 30 meters to go in the Olympic 100-meter final, he pulled his hamstring and settled for the bronze, losing to Hines and Jamaica’s Lennox Miller.
“I won my first three heats and got third in the final, which (ticked) me off because I was better than him,” Greene said of Hines. “I was getting ready to make my move, but I couldn’t make it.”
Hines’ 9.95 seconds was recognized as a world record as the Olympiad was the first to use fully automatic timing and would not be broken until 1983 by Calvin Smith.
Greene didn’t leave Mexico City without gold, though. He ran the first leg on the American 4x100 team that set another world record with a time of 38.19 seconds. Mel Pender, Smith and Hines also were on the team.
The Olympiad became known for a moment in history that caused controversy on a worldwide stage. After winning the 200-meter dash in a record 19.83 seconds, American Tommie Smith — along with third-place teammate John Carlos — did a “Black Power” salute while on the medal podium, raising their black-gloved fists in a protest of racism in America.
Greene completed the Army ROTC program and finished graduate school at Nebraska in 1969, the same year he married his wife Linda. (The couple have two adult daughters.) He then went into the Army as a second lieutenant and began a 20-year military career. He continued to compete in track part-time through 1972, when he tried out for the Munich Games but did not make the team.
“Everybody asked why I didn’t make the team,” Greene said. “The younger kids were faster than me.”
Greene retired as a major in 1989. He was stationed in West Berlin from 1971-75 and coached some of the Army’s track teams during his time in the military. He went on to serve as an executive for Special Olympics International in Washington, D.C.
Bad health has struck Greene in recent years. He was diagnosed with diabetes in 1988, underwent triple bypass surgery in 2002, two neck surgeries as a result of a spinal condition in 2008 and a kidney transplant in 2010.
But ailments haven’t slowed Greene down from being involved with Nebraska athletes, serving as a Life Skills volunteer by speaking with Cornhuskers athletes.
The attitude he carried onto the track for each race was that of confidence. Today, retired in Lincoln, his attitude is one of gratefulness.
“I feel alive, glad to be alive,” he said. “Walking with a cane is 1,000 percent better than on a wheelchair.”