“Have you ever been poor and cold and ain’t got no heat? Have you ever been hungry, poor and can’t get nothing to eat? That’s real poor. You see, I was real poor. You see, some of you all was just jive poor. But I was real poor.” –Petey Greene
Not many Americans can say they’ve had dinner at the Whitehouse, and fewer ex-heroin addicts can say such a thing, and even less ex-convicts could even imagine such a feat. Well, Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene was all three, and sat across the dinner table from President Jimmy Carter, right as rain, on a cool evening in March 1978, just as if his name was Rosalynn or some sort.
Greene was born in the poverty stricken projects of Washington D.C. in 1931. At age sixteen, he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Army whereby he served as a combat medic in the Korean War but was later discharged for heroin possession. In 1960, Greene was convicted of armed robbery and was sentenced to five to ten years at Lorton Reformatory. It was here that Greene established his skills for radio after having been allowed to serve as the reformatories radio deejay. Eager to continue his talents on the outside, Greene allegedly staged saving another convict from suicide and upped the ante in obtaining an early release.
Out of jail, Greene found himself on the streets of Washington D.C., but unlike the days of his troubled youth, Greene now had a talent and a determination to be heard. Under the wing of program director Dewey Hughes of WOL radio station in D.C., Greene was given the chance to expose his persona on air to the city. The station was overwhelmed with positive feedback from listeners, thus securing his position and enabling his shock jock persona to grow.
Greene became the voice to the black community during a confusing and turbulent time in Washington D.C. Directly after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4th, 1968; Greene guided listeners through the loss, keeping King’s objective in perspective. Later in life, Greene founded Efforts for Ex-Convicts, an organization established to assist former prisoners in succeeding on the right side of the law. He discussed community issues such as poverty and racism live on his shows and live on the streets, frequenting many demonstrations during the peak of his popularity. After his death from liver cancer in 1984, ten thousand mourners lined up in freezing temperatures outside Washington’s Union Wesley AME Zion Church to pay homage. It was the most populated funeral in D.C. history for a man not elected to office.