Charles Austin, community organizer, died June 18, 2017, at age 77. Photo: Courtesy of Austin’s friends
Charles Austin, community organizer, died June 18, 2017, at age 77. Photo: Courtesy of Austin’s friends

Charles Lee Austin was the kind of force who could turn a group of people into a neighborhood.

For many years, it was difficult to walk around South Berkeley without bumping into him. Cane in hand, a beanie on his head, and a smile on his face, he was always eager to regale you with tales of Berkeley in an earlier era, or to implore you to join his tireless fight for justice.

In recent years, Austin became best known in Berkeley for spearheading the campaign to change the name of the South Branch library, located across the street from the house he lived in with Carmelita Garner, his wife of 40 years, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Russell Street.

Austin, an accomplished community organizer, husband, father, friend and retired political campaign worker, died Sunday, June 18, at age 77. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer about a month earlier. The many friends and family members he left behind say his lively presence is already dearly missed.

“Charles was so well known, as well as respected and impactful to the community, I addressed him as Mr. President, for president of South Berkeley,” wrote fellow organizer Gregory Daniel in an email. “In fact, I probably only used his name a half a dozen times.”

Austin once told the local League of Women Voters chapter, which honored him in 2016, that the library effort all “started with this tooth.” Decades ago, Austin went to get his teeth cleaned by dentist Thomas Arnold, who still practices in South Berkeley. Austin found out that Arnold worked in the same building that had once housed Berkeley’s first African-American dentist, William Pittman. The dentist’s wife, Tarea Hall Pittman, had been a local civil-rights leader and the host of a popular radio show called “Negroes in the News.”

Austin, fascinated, began researching Pittman and came up with the idea to re-name the South Branch library after her. The black population in the neighborhood was declining, and Austin found that many people who were moving in knew little about the area’s history of segregation and those who worked against it.

From left: Sally Hindman, Charles Austin and Willie Phillips, campaigning for the library name change in 2015. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Community members, librarians, and former library staff held a rally March 16 to call for the removal of some members of the library board. Charles Austin is on the far left. Photo: Tracey Taylor

For months, Austin went to library board meeting and frequented neighborhood spots like the Thai Temple and the antiques shops on Adeline Street to gather signatures in support of the name change.

Despite setbacks, including initial resistance from the Board of Library Trustees, Austin and the many allies he had recruited prevailed. The forthcoming signage on the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch Library will serve not only as an homage to Pittman, but as a tribute to Austin and his passionate campaign as well.

Austin’s library effort was the culmination of a life spent working for social justice. He worked to keep community members out of prison and led employment training programs for incarcerated people and others, through jobs with the state Department of Corrections, the U.S. New Careers Manpower Program and the Institute on Drug Abuse Prevention. Austin worked on a number of political campaigns, holding leadership roles in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential run and on one of Wilson Riles’ mayoral campaigns.

“He was a seasoned organizer,” said Willie Phillips, a close friend of Austin’s and a fellow activist. And the decision to focus on Tarea Hall Pittman during the past few years was a deliberate one, he said. Austin wanted to demonstrate that many of the challenges Pittman confronted persisted in the modern day.

“He taught a lesson,” Phillips said. “He took a microscope and looked at an individual who reflected a society struggling with same issues. Here’s a lady who fought her life dealing with segregation… he was looking at it with the real perspective of, ‘We have to clean up our own house.’”

Austin was out demonstrating in relation to another library controversy as recently as March, when he joined a group calling for the removal of some members of the library’s board of trustees.

Austin was a mentor for many. His sheer energy and dedication made others reevaluate their jadedness and complacency, Phillips said.

He collected more than 2,000 signature on his petition to rename the library — thanks to his persistence and ability to engage anyone in conversation.

“He’s just been like a thorn in your side!” joked friend and director of Youth Spirit Artworks Sally Hindman, with affection, at one of Austin’s many campaign gatherings in 2015.

Members of the community advocacy group Friends of Adeline said they will miss Austin’s presence in the neighborhood.

“He was a voice for racial justice, a leader, and a cheerful, friendly, thoughtful man who cared deeply about South Berkeley,” the group wrote in a statement.

Though it could certainly seem like it, Austin had not spent his whole life in Berkeley. Born in Oklahoma, he grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Pepperdine University. He moved to Northern California in the 1970s, and quickly made Berkeley his home. He met Garner through political connections, and they had two sons together.

Austin developed a tradition of sweeping the sidewalk outside his home on weekends, chatting with neighbors and passers-by. A group of neighbors has volunteered to carry on the tradition, and will begin sweeping in the same spot on Sundays in his memory.

“It is for all of us who choose to carry on his work and legacy,” Daniel said. “He often joked with me saying, ‘I’m going on vacation, and leaving all of this to ya’ll!’”

Austin is survived by his wife, his son Darryl Austin, his step-daughter Mary Jane Garner-Fong, his step-son Edward Garner and many grand-children and a great-grandchild.

The family will hold a viewing on Monday, June 26 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at at Sunset View Cemetery at 101 Colusa Ave. in El Cerrito. A memorial service for Austin will be held in the same location on Tuesday at 11 a.m, followed by a reception at Wat Mongkolratanaram (Thai Temple) at 1911 Russell St.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...