Exactly how James Cates may play a role in black history as a changed man who helped change his times or as a model of the changes taking place among African-American men is yet to be seen.
But Cates is a changed man. No longer a slave to drugs and alcohol, Cates broke the chains of an addiction that imprisoned his mind, body and soul, and went from years of incarceration to a lifestyle of liberation, thanks to a transformation that he says belongs to God.
Unlike many students who attended the historic College Hill High School in Cleveland, Cates admits he did not take advantage of the education offered to him as a youth. Instead, as schools became integrated and he was transferred to Cleveland High School, Cates made a drastic transition that would send his life into a tailspin for decades.
“I was associating with the wrong crowd of people,” Cates said. “My life began to make a turn, not realizing how important education was. I was wanting to get out and start being a bad boy — doing stuff I had no business doing. I was 14, in the eighth grade. Most children don’t wake up in the morning and say they’re going to get on the wrong road. It’s the wrong influence that we get around that affects our lives. It turned me away from going to school when I should have been in school. My life was taking a turn toward crime. I lost interest in learning. If I knew then what I know now I would have put me a bed in the school and that’s where I would have stayed.”
Instead, Cates, better known as “Moke” on the streets, became a juvenile delinquent with a hard reputation for rebellion. Although he saw the inside of several reform schools, the miscreant teenager was on a one-way collision with the law.
“When I was young I started doing things like going to a car lot, jumping into cars and driving off. One thing led to another as far as smoking weed (marijuana), then mixing it up with a little powder — cocaine! I graduated from that to a glass pipe. From the glass pipe I started smoking ‘rocks.’ When I needed money I found whatever I could to support my habit. That habit requires a whole lot of money. So I found myself doing things I had no business doing. Then, I was about 17, 18 or 19 — I was so high, I’m not even sure. I went to reform school twice. I don’t think it did anything at all for me.”
Cates said it seemed like every time he looked around he was being arrested after that. Cleveland’s correctional facility had become his second home. That is, until he was caught and convicted of selling and delivering crack cocaine.
“I ran as long as I possibly could until I eventually got caught,” he confessed. “I was down in Chattanooga but they sent me back to Cleveland to stand trial for delivering crack cocaine. This was in 2000.”
Convicted of a felony, Cates was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison at a West Tennessee State Penitentiary, where he experienced the discipline of a structured life, hard work and the painful consequences of bad behavior.
“In the five years I was there, I only got one ‘write-up,’” Cates said. “I worked hard, did good and when I got out of prison in 2005, I paroled to Nashville into a halfway house there.”
Having served less than half of his sentence, Cates was out on probation. Still, he found himself unequipped to deal with the realities of life. So he found his way back to the glass pipe. Years of his life were being wasted. Year after year, details of an unfinished life were slipping away as Cates sank deeper and deeper into poverty, drug abuse and despair.
“About the late part of 2009, I was sitting in Nashville — burned out. I didn’t have anywhere to go, had nowhere to live, didn’t have any money, no food, no water, no family — all of my family was in Cleveland. I was just tired and burned out. So I just threw my pipe down and said, ‘Lord, please help me! I’m so tired.’”
Cates left Nashville and returned home to Cleveland where his friend, the late Jimmy Goldston, offered him a place to stay. Still, temptation was following Cates with every move he made. Now in his 50s, the disillusioned addict longed for a major change but lacked the tools and willpower to do it alone. One day, all of that changed.
“I was invited by John Wesley Sharp to come to Friends and Family Day at Bower Elementary School,” Cates recalled. “That’s where the Christian Fellowship Center was having the event. He gave me a T-shirt with ‘Friends and Family’ on it. I told my friend Jimmy the day before the event that John Wesley Sharp (J.W.) had given me a T-shirt and invited me.”
While Cates was sleeping in Jimmy’s room the day of the event, Cates said Jimmy came in and forcefully told him to wake up and attend the event.
“He said, ‘Get up, man! Get up and go! You need to go, man, because you need it! I am at the crossroad myself!’ I said, ‘O.K. I’m going to get up and go.’ He said, ‘Go on in there, clean up and go! You need to go!’ He seen where I was at. And that’s what changed it,” Cates confessed. “That did it. I can feel it in my heart right now.”
After attending the Friends and Family event, Cates said it made a difference. He then took steps to make the most dramatic change of his life. He said what had been missing all of his life was a relationship with Jesus Christ. Now, he said, his life has meaning and he has a message to share with others.
“I know my life can make a change in other people if they will allow it. My life can help someone else who is homeless, hopeless, who are on drugs. God can take all of that mess out of your life. When he changed my heart, he changed my life. God delivered me from drugs, from alcohol, from cigarettes and from homelessness. Now I live for the Lord every day — not just on Sunday morning — every day. Martha Tibbs has been a great influence as my pastor. I’ve never missed a Sunday school or service since 2010, which is when I gave my life to Christ.”
From that time to the present, Cates said he has stayed sober and out of trouble, giving the glory to God. But he admits that life is still not easy. Even when he perform random acts of kindness, Cates said he is confronted with racism from time to time and other negative responses that he must cope with.
“It’s never going to be easy when you give your life to the Lord,” he said. “I am not looking for easiness. Even to this day I have struggles.”
Now, at age 62, Cates has emerged as a man on a mission — a man with a message that goes beyond Black History Month — a message for anyone in school, considering dropping out of school, addicted to alcohol or drugs, or who takes pleasure in delinquent or destructive behavior.
“I love people — especially children and young people,” he said. “If there is anything I would encourage them to do, it would be to learn all they can about God, have Him in their lives, get an education and be obedient to their parents. Don’t learn the hard way. Learn the right way. If you can go to school — go to school. It’s much better now than it was back then. All these computers and things make learning easy. I will tell anyone that they can change with God’s help.”
Cates, who is self-employed, never married. He has one 41-year-old son, three granddaughters, two grandsons and one great-grandson. As a changed man in these ever changing times, his focus centers more on positive relationships and making an impact in the lives of others.
Still, the energetic senior says he enjoys playing basketball and horse shoes, as well as singing and walking — the simple things in life.