Community organizer Charles Austin dies at 77

Ben Bartlett/Courtesy

Charles Austin, a longtime Berkeley community organizer, died Sunday. He was 77.

Austin spearheaded the neighborhood’s efforts to rename the Berkeley Public Library’s South Branch in honor of civil rights activist Tarea Hall Pittman. He helped collect more than 1,000 signatures on a local petition for the memorialization and worked with City Council members to achieve his vision.

According to University of San Francisco associate professor David Holler — who worked with Austin on the library renaming — Austin viewed Pittman as a symbol of African American activism well worth commemorating. Pittman served as the regional director of the NAACP and her work included voter registration and equal housing rights.

Austin also worked with the local chapter of the NAACP and was good friends with the chapter’s director, according to Robert Young, a friend of Austin for more than 15 years.

The League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville honored Austin in 2016 with the Spirit of the League Award for his library renaming campaign.

“Charles was … warm, cheerful … a true community activist and very patient,” Holler said. “He taught me what activism should be, and (that) it takes incredible patience and consistence.”

According to City Councilmember Linda Maio, who worked with Austin to move the library renaming forward, Austin was a “wonderfully warm person” who stuck to his beliefs.

“It was old-school activism,” Holler said. “I thought of him as the unofficial mayor of South Berkeley and it all came together with the library in the last four years.”

According to Young, Austin was a fixture in South Berkeley. Austin’s stroke several years ago forced him to stop driving, leading him to hit the pavement to pass out fliers for the library’s cause, Young said, adding that Austin was on every corner ready to talk to anyone about anything.

Austin’s efforts to rename the library reflect his lifelong dedication to social outreach and action. He worked for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the federal New Careers Manpower Program and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Austin also worked on local political campaigns, including running Jesse Jackson’s Northern California campaign in 1984 and managing an Oakland City Council member’s mayoral campaign, former League of Women Voters President Nancy Bickel said in an online statement.

“Charles was so effective at community building because he believed in collaboration and the power of inclusion — inviting people in instead of pushing them out,” said City Councilmember Ben Bartlett in an email. “He was a truly inspirational figure.”

“He is going to be missed. Anyone you ask will say the same thing: (he was) always warm and always looking for a conversation,” Young said.

Contact Sydney Johnson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydjohnsonnews.