Politics & Government

Malachi Greene: Former council member ‘a great and wise man’

Malachi Greene, right, and Fountain Odom celebrate favorable early returns for a bonds vote at Dilworth Grill in Charlotte in 2007.
Malachi Greene, right, and Fountain Odom celebrate favorable early returns for a bonds vote at Dilworth Grill in Charlotte in 2007. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Malachi Greene was many things over his 73 years: A Democrat, a Republican, a stage actor and director, a wit, a raconteur and a fierce advocate for his community.

Tributes continued to pour in Friday for the former Charlotte City Council member who died Thursday after a long battle with cancer.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor, called him, “a great and wise man, and a friend.”

“He wore the battle scars of a generation that struggled so much for the opportunities that many of us enjoy today,” Foxx said. “His smile and encouraging manner always gave me hope. A giant tree has fallen in the forest.”

Greene, a businessman, was a longtime player in Charlotte’s civic life. With an outsized personality, he was able to work with people from divergent backgrounds and ideologies.

“His personality was so engaging and approachable,” said former Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican who brought Greene into his administration and later served with him on a civic board. “He had no hangups about engaging people to find something that would work.”

A native of Chester County, S.C., Greene grew up in Charlotte. Even at a young age he wasn’t bashful about speaking his mind. At West Charlotte High, from where he graduated in 1960, he was quick to debate anyone if they took a position he didn’t like.

“He loved to challenge you,” said classmate Eula White of Charlotte. “If you had an opinion and he thought it was not the way it should be – it was on. He was smart, loved to use words. He was a real politician, even then.”

Party affiliation didn’t matter

After graduating from Livingstone College, Greene taught high school in Hillsborough and went on to teach English and theater at Greensboro’s Bennett College.

By the 1980s, he’d returned to Charlotte. He served on the city’s planning commission and went to Raleigh to serve in Martin’s administration.

About that time, he was part of a trio of African-American Republicans, with James Ross and Jim Polk who went from Charlotte to Raleigh, where they advocated for affirmative action programs for minority- and women-owned businesses.

Later, by the time Greene served two terms on City Council (from 1995 to 1999) he’d become a Democrat. The westside district he represented had never elected a Republican.

“Malachi never let party affiliations get in the way,” said Ken Koontz, a Charlotte businessman who’d known Greene since he was a boy. “If the Republicans were hot, and they had a spot for him to fill, then he was a Republican. I think he was mostly an independent.”

Greene was quick to defend his friends when he thought they were being wrongly accused – even when they were members of the other party. In 1997, fellow council member Don Reid, a white Republican, had said he was more afraid to encounter young black men on the street than young white men, calling it a result of Charlotte’s crime problem.

A group of African-Americans, many from Greene’s district, crowded the chambers and called Reid a racist. Greene, who could be unabashedly honest, defended him.

“Don and I have been friends a long time and we’ve had heated arguments about a lot of things,” he said. “But I’ve never smelled racism on him.”

Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor who served with Greene, said he “had a personality second to none.” At council meetings, McCrory said he and Greene had a private signal. If the mayor thought Greene was going on too long, he would touch his chin in a certain way. Greene would get the message.

“He always knew when it was time to to cut himself off,” McCrory said. “Even when we were on opposite sides, we never lost our friendship.”

People gave him strength

Greene was known in later years for holding court at “The Office” – the Bojangles’ on West Trade Street. He also was a regular at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, where he’d report on his health and let the gathering know that he was grateful for every day.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake, who had known Greene since she and her late husband, George, moved to Charlotte in 1964, said that even when Greene was his sickest he’d muster enough strength to make it Bojangles’.

“He loved being with people; it gave him strength,” Leake said. “He would just sit there with all the other men and hold court. He was a great talker. He was my political buddy. He called me ‘Cuz,’ and he always told me, ‘I got your back, Cuz.’ 

Greene had been under hospice care for the last four to five weeks, Koontz said.

Greene was first diagnosed with prostate cancer about 2  1/2 years ago, he said. He was in Novant Presbyterian Medical Center in a room that looked straight down on Elizabeth Avenue, where workers were building the trolley line.

For years, Greene had advocated for a trolley to the westside, which he felt had been cut off from the city by the construction of Interstate 77, Koontz said. One day, he and Greene sat at the window and watched the building.

“The city had been promising the trolley for years, and Malachi always thought it would be a great thing for the westside,” Koontz said. “I told him, ‘Only you could get a room where you could watch the construction of something no one else wanted.’ He said, ‘They promised us this 20 years ago. I’m tired of waiting.’ 

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061; @dperlmutt