James Austin


James Austin

West Greenville Community Member. Mentor for individuals struggling with substance abuse.

"I learned if I kept doing the same thing over and over, I would get the same results. So, when I got saved here at Bethel I learned, you have to share the negative and the positive.”


Full Interview

James, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

It’s like this... I think it makes me want to cry. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to tell my whole story. There are a lot of things in my life that are just between me and God. Things that I will go to the grave with. But you know, to open up and just tell it— the whole thing. You know, there are times when you get to tell a part here, and a piece there, but a lot of times people won't see how it all fits.

Ok. Let’s do it. How did you end up in West Greenville?

We all moved over here, my whole family, in 1956. I was four, going on five. My sister under me was three (there were several of us) but one of my sisters died and we moved down here after that.

What was your life like, growing up?

I mean it was, as a child you take it for granted that people are going to be there for you all the time. You don’t think about the hard times, and really, we didn’t know what hard times meant. We had food, clothes, things like that. As I grew, I got the taste for— everyone drank. When I was young, everyone would be in the house drinking, and they would leave glasses with stuff in it, and as a child, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, and I’d sip out of the glasses because I liked how it made me feel good. Everybody else was smiling and laughing, and I wanted to smile and laugh right along with them. I was nine. I was nine years old.

How did things progress at that point?

You know, as I got older, I started hangin’ with my boys in the street and life took a turn for the worse. When you go to school, you start hearing stuff. Kids saying, “I got this; I got that,” and you start looking at yourself and you think, I ain’t got that. And people get to talking about you and stuff like that. You start realizing your family has problems, some that you didn’t see before. I came to realize that we were poor. Really poor. I mean there were good times that I could remember. I remember us all leaving the house to go on picnics, with all the families in our house; there were six families in our house (it was a big house). When we left, we didn’t have to lock our doors. The community raised us. We learned to respect that. If we did something wrong down the street, the people on that end would whoop our rear-ends. Then take us home and then we would get whooped again. So we didn’t do that again. That is how we grew up.

As you started getting older, what changed?

You know I was thirteen going on fourteen, I found the need to start stealing. I would break stuff that wasn’t mine. I started figuring that people owed it to me. I would feel like that and it got me in trouble. They put me in a reform school, twice for that. When I turned seventeen I couldn’t go back. You know I was young and I didn’t want to work, and when drugs came into the scene over here, it was like, bam, instant money. I started selling drugs and stuff. The police had gotten to know me, they knew my face, and they would stop me, even if I didn’t have anything. These community cops, they knew you and knew your whole family and stuff. It was like every time they would pick me up and take me home and tell my parents, it was like they were helping our families as they could. We were wild over here. For a while cops wouldn’t even come over here because it was so bad. 

When was this?

In the 50’s and 60’s the cops stayed clear of here, but in the early 70’s, that is when cops got to know everyone. They’d wave at you, stop the car and ask how you were doing. It didn’t matter what the race; they would stop by and find out how you were doing.

What caused that change in their approach?

Drugs. It wasn’t real bad at first. But it started getting worse and when heroin was introduced, it got real bad. They decided with the legislation….they were going to make it harder for the people selling drugs. But back then, it wasn’t all this strong arm stuff they do today. They passed laws in South Carolina so that if you were selling heroin and pot and stuff, the sentencing was going to be different. They went from giving you two or three years to fifteen years.

How did this affect you?

I got in trouble when I was seventeen, and had to go to court downtown. The judge used the Youth Defendant Act which prescribed a one to six year sentence. With that, I would have the opportunity to get out in a year. They sent me to a place down in Columbia called Manning and I was seventeen years old. They had these hardcore people in there, and you know, I got raped. That is where I learned to start hating. I hated each and every person. I told myself, this isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Eventually I got even. Back then, things are not like they are now. God tells us to turn the other cheek. There was no turning the other cheek. It was, what you have done to me, eventually will get done to you. Things happened that were…All in all, I ended up spending twenty-eight years of my life in prison because I was full of hate and animosity. I really started reading a bunch of black history and became more and more agitated as time went by. I believed everything I did, I was owed. I thought, they have no right to put me in jail. For twenty-eight years I kept getting the same results.

What were those years like?

It was like this. I would get out, stay home a while and then I’d go back. Get out, stay home, go back. So I ended up doing my life time.

Would you generally go back to West Greenville during your times out of prison?

After my marriage broke up, I moved to New York and stayed for a while. Then I came home. For me, at that point, it felt like the pace had changed. Things were going on that hadn’t been happening when I left. Life had gotten fast, because of being in the city. I knew how Northerners felt when they come down South. I got a job at that point. But every time I got a job, I blew it. Back then, I was making good money. But I would always blow it. I would find a reason not to go into work. I would blow up in the bossman’s face, for no reason.

What made it hard to just to life outside of prison?

I had all this hustling in my system and it was hard to reprogram.  It really started to be a habit, going back and forth. Between going to jail and going home, trying to take care of my son— he was born the day I went to prison, when I was sent down to Perry. A year later she brought him down, and after that all I wanted was to do was what was right by him. When I got out of prison in ’87, I tried to do my best. But when I got back, his Mom had started doing crack cocaine. I had a nice job and was doing everything I could so they gave me custody of my son. He was seven years old. One thing I never did was say anything bad about his Mom. Even though he knew, he never heard us say a bad word about each other. My son, he works for the Post Office now.

How did things progress after that?

In 1997 they passed the Three Strikes Law. I was already way passed that. I was forty something. So what happened was that I went to jail and a solicitor from Greenville County (an Assistant DA) came to ask how I wanted to plea in court. She told me, “James, you could get a life sentence.” She said, “If you plead for 18-25, you might get that. But if you plead not guilty— they have proof against you— and you will be put away for the rest of your life.” I said, “No way.18-25 years? That is a life sentence in itself. Do you know how old I am?” I said, “I will never see light again.” They were trying to get people like me off the streets. She said I was a nuisance, to put it in a halfway decent way. It was like, if you were black, she thought you were part of a system that was trying to corrupt the rest of them.

One of my Sisters hired this lawyer, a black lawyer. And she came to my rescue. She and God did. At that time my hair was black and after six months, during the time I was waiting for my court date, my hair had turned from black to grey. I had gotten on my knees one night, and prayed about the case, and the next morning, my jail-mate said, “What’s done happened to your hair?” And I looked in the mirror and my hair was completely grey. That was a revelation.

What do you mean by that?

I asked God to give me another chance, and when I went to court with my lawyer, we went in there with the idea that we would plead for twelve years. We got in there. The Assistant DA was in there with her crew and then there was me and my lawyer. So the judge called the DA and my lawyer to the bench and handed her a piece of paper and (indicated) what it was. They said, “We aren’t going to give you a life sentence even though you deserve it.” But it was like, “Sign this piece of paper. We are going to give you thirteen years and you have to match that out.” I thought to myself this can’t be right. My lawyer said, “Sign the paper, boy!” When the judged asked me questions, and stuff…I was about to bolt…but he said, “Be grateful. You are the second person to be tried under this law. Their first guy, he was in Charleston, and he got the life sentence.” He said, “I think I see something in you. I think you might be ready to change.”

Was that the case?

You see, I couldn’t earn any credits. I had to do seven out of thirteen years. I went in there, like I always went, with my chest stuck out, and in reality man, I was scared. I never forgot the first time what happened. I hadn’t been in prison for about five months and a big guy came in there, and that morning, he came in there and took my coffee out of the microwave. I put it back (in). He took it back out. I put it back in, and it was just about done but he took it out that last time and I just threw it into his face. I threw it in his face. Then I picked him up and threw him down. He was almost 300 pounds and I was like 145. You had to let people know they couldn’t walk all over you. But I was messed up for a long time after that. For the first few years, I wasn’t doing anything differently. I was smoking, drinking, smoking weed. In prison it’s just like a vacation because you can get pretty much anything you need if you can pay for it. For a couple of years I was the old me. I just didn’t care about nothing else. Everyone knew that the guards were bringing in drugs, or prostitutes, or alcohol. The government just makes so much money off of the prison system. They got over 2 million people locked up in the prison system. They have got over 100,000 people in prison in Greenville County. Then, these corporations come down and build things with the incarcerated workforce. The system gets paid $15-20 dollars an hour for working (which is cheap compared to what it would cost them somewhere else). And then the prison would pay the prisoner maybe $15 a month.

When did things begin to change for you?

After I had been in there for three years, I started going to church one night. Some guy just invited me to go and I just decided to go. There was something about what the pastors were talking about that just got to me. I thought, this could really change my life. I started taking Bible courses through a program out of the Atlanta Bible College. He gave me a form to fill out and I mailed it, and for four years that was all I did was study God’s word. I did that from morning to evening. It consumed me, because then, I had something to do. So after four years I had graduated. And during that time I had stopped drinking and smoking. My life had a complete turn-around.

Did this continue after you were released?

When I got out, no one believed in the change that had happened in my life, and I got a lot of push-back from people who had known me for a long, long time. I tried pretty hard, but it put me over the edge, and I started back doing crack. It got to the point where people just didn’t believe a person could change. I started drinking really heavy like I had never stopped. I started smoking more and more. I didn’t know what to do. I used to walk the streets at night, by myself because partly I wanting to be alone, stoned out of my mind. I worked everyday, because I needed to take care of my Mom. It got to a point where I really didn’t want to do drugs anymore, and I tried to commit suicide. It was like everything else in my life. When things just got too hard, God stepped in and intervened.

What happened?

With all the drugs and alcohol I had, I couldn’t get drunk, I couldn’t get high. I asked God to take my life from me. What happened was, he took my old life and gave me a new one (that wasn’t what I had meant at the time, but…) The very next day, I was coming down through this parking lot, down through here, and the pastor, back then, in 2005, he was standing out there in the parking lot with his foot up on the flower bed. He asked me if I would go to church the next day. He said that God had sent him for me. Reverend Fleming. He said he had got up that morning with no intentions…he didn’t know my circumstances. I didn’t know who he was… but I came to church. I went home, I locked myself up in my room and that night, Saturday night, I took a shower and shaved. I had one black suit left. I come to church that Sunday. When I walked up to the front door, I tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t open. I tried to pull it open, but it wouldn’t open. There were people standing out there. A child that still comes to church here, she came up and pulled the door open. And I walked in behind her. Feeling it then, and telling it now…it just can’t be explained. I was standing in the hallway and it was like all the weight of the world fell off my shoulders. and I walked into the sanctuary and Reverend Fleming was standing down there, and I was crying. I was crying. He led me to the altar and I gave my life to the Lord that day. I did.

How did your life change after that experience?

I had a hole in my heart because of all the stuff I had to go through, and God filled that void. That emptiness that was inside me. That life that I wanted to take away, he gave me. He gave me another life, a life in Christ. This was November, 2005. It wasn’t easy. I was an addict. But they had an Overcomers program and this is where I got clean. I didn’t have to go to rehab, I was able to get clean right here.

How has your life been since that time?

I owe God and this community more than I could ever repay. Everything I ever done, God took all that away and gave me another chance. For the last twelve years, you know I had some gaps in there, but there was never any doubt that God was going to be with me. I go to AA today. They have a better program I think than NA. But I benefit from both of them. When I started going to Church with Reverend Fleming, I thought I knew the Bible in and out, but I come to find out that I didn’t.

You are pretty involved at Bethel Church, it sounds like.

I try not to miss church unless I am sick. I think since then I’ve only missed church like eight times. I had three surgeries. spinal surgeries. That put me away for a while. I was on disability for a while. This is very important: I didn’t have any job, because I was so sick, and when I came to church, it was like, everybody knew I didn’t have a job, or no money (this was right after my first surgery). For three years, the church took care of me. It wasn’t like they wrote a check for me. It was the people in the church. When I would go home, lay my coat down, and find a check in my pockets or when I would open my Bible and find $40-$50 in my Bible, that was how they took care of me. I could never repay that. There were three to four years I could barely get out of my house. The only time I really wanted to get out was on Sundays; I was laid up after that first surgery for twelve weeks. I almost died, truly. But after the third week after the surgery, I asked one of my brothers, here at the church, I said, “I am about to go crazy if you will come get me and take me to the church.”

What happened to your back that you needed these surgeries?

It goes back to the time when the guy in prison fell on me. It almost broke my back. I walked around bent over for about 8 months. The only thing they gave me was Ibuprofen and Motrin. Stuff like that. I just started walking a lot and I was able to straighten up and stuff. When I came home, I wasn’t feeling bad. I was working a temporary job, construction for Tulsa down in Columbia. We were remodeling the dorms up there at Clemson, and my back gave out on me and I couldn’t go to work. I was laying around the house. It got to where, in order to get out of bed, I had to roll out of bed, pull up on the bed, and I would be bent over like I was down in the prison. Every move I made it was like nothing you would ever want to wish on anybody else. The nerves in my back were sitting between my spinal column. Every time I moved it was crushing it. The doctor told me, if I hadn’t came when I did, I would probably be dead in a week. I had the other surgery to repair some of the damage being done, additionally. Nothing went wrong in the first surgery, there was just so much damage. So they had to go back in there, three years later. I had surgery 2006, 2009, and then in 2016. So I can't bend all the way over.

And that is when you found a loving community, within the church.

That is when I found that they meant what they said. Pretty much, we didn’t lack for nothing, my mom didn’t lack for nothing. I started looking at it like, all the things I did wrong, all the energy and stuff, all the wrong things, I can take the energy I have now and turn it into something. Now I am a mentor. Here at the church. A sponsor. Someone to help if things get rough. Someone who is going to answer the phone even if it is three in the morning. My mentor asked me if I would sponsor his brother. They are from Eastover. I told him I had to think about it and ask God about it because I didn’t want to say I would do something and then do it half-heartedly. After a few weeks I got back to him and said, “Yeah, I will sponsor him.”

What was that like for you, James?

Today he is my best friend. We went to Columbia and brought him up here. He had gone through a 28 day program down there in Columbia, We brought him up here. He is 55 now. My whole job was: keep him clean, take him to meetings, stuff like that. My job wasn’t supposed to become more than that, but we became best friends. I have had people in my life who I thought were my friends, but never something like that. God blessed me with people who would bless me like that. And for the first five to six years of sobriety, we were together everyday. On Sundays we would go out to eat. They got this Jamaican restaurant downtown and we would go out and eat down there, and walk to the park and we would just talk, you know. He would tell me about his life and stuff, and then I would tell him my story, from then to now.

What else was happening for you at that time?

At that point, I got my family back. I got my son back. I have a granddaughter, six years old. Yes I do. She is a sweetie. Man, I had so many things change in my life. I see people on the street today and I wonder, was I ever like this, back then? Did people look at me, like they are looking at those men on the street today? I pray that I was never like that, but I don’t know. I don’t remember it. I really don’t. Sure, I tried to cut corners, because I am not a perfect person, but I have tried to stay on track.

What was it like reconnecting with your son?

My son lives over here on Pelham Road. He wanted his kids to grow up in a better neighborhood. It was kind of hard. He was a teenager when I first went into jail. He was just going into high school, just starting to learn what life was about. You know, he loved to play basketball. That was his life. He played basketball in college. Those seven years I can never get back. Because I wasn’t there. It took three or four years to build any type of consistent relationship with him. If I could have, I would have talked to him everyday. I think one day, I called him and said, “Let’s go out to eat.”  And he said, “Ok, I can do that today.” So we went to Applebees. And we just talked. I told him, besides God, he was the only thing in my life that meant more. He was the only flesh and blood that I had that was a part of me. Everything in my life at that point was orchestrated by God so that I could make peace with my son.

Thank you for sharing your story with me James.

I go to AA and stuff like that so you know, being open- everybody is pretty much up front. I learned if I kept doing the same thing over and over, I would get the same results. So, when I got saved here at Bethel I learned, you have to share the negative and the positive. If you are going to be truthful about it…not trying to make anything look better than it was.