Pastor and politician The Rev. Calvin O Butts III passed away on Friday at home in New York City. He was 73. According to Calvin O. Butts IV, his son, pancreatic cancer was the reason of death.
Butts served as lead pastor of the storied Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for more than 30 years. This more than 200-year-old organization was founded in 1808 and was at the epicenter of the community’s religious and political life. Butts came from a long line of charismatic preachers that included Samuel Proctor, Adam Clayton Powell, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In 1993, the church was designated as a landmark in New York City.
Butts served the congregation of Abyssinian’s thousands of members as well as visitors from all over the world with his learned, occasionally incisive sermons.
People crammed into the opulent Gothic church on 138th Street to hear Butts speak on the importance of social justice, economic equality, and “loving one another” among neighbors.
Mayor of New York Eric Adams claimed in a statement on Friday that Butts served as a mentor to him during some of the most trying times for the city. Adams declared, “The City has lost a true giant.”
To rebuild Harlem, he established the Abyssinian Development Corporation.
Butts, who was born on July 19, 1949, to working-class parents, relocated with his family to New York City when he was a little boy. He went to Morehouse College in Atlanta after completing his public high school education in Queens, following in the footsteps of Morehouse alumni like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, and Surgeon General David Satcher. After moving back to New York, he attended Union Theological Seminary for his master’s degree and then graduated from Drew University with a PhD.
While he was a graduate student and a new parent, Butts started working at Abyssinian as an office assistant and advanced within the church. He was appointed the senior pastor of Abyssinians in 1989.
Harlem had a long history but few resources at the time. Butts established the Abyssinian Development Corporation the same year he was appointed head pastor with the goal of fostering thriving companies and housing for Harlem residents, many of whom were in risk of being driven out by impending gentrification. (Some could counter that Butts was only speeding up the inevitable with his development collaborations.)
Butts occasionally belonged to a group of prominent political and civic figures, including former congressman Charles Rangel, former Manhattan Borough chief Percy Sutton, and former mayor David Dinkins. (He collaborated with them when they needed each other and scolded them when he felt he had to.)
Although he considered himself a “race guy,” he didn’t always support Black people.
In 1985, the Black community was outraged when a Black man in Howard Beach, Queens, died while evading white attackers. Michael Griffith had been attempting to flee from young white men beating him to death because they were angry he was in “their” area. Butts made use of his status as the senior pastor of Abyssinians to press for the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle the case, which led to the conviction of some of the attackers.
In order to establish a committee to look into police violence in Black communities, he urged Congressman John Conyers Jr.
Even though Butts considered himself to be a “race man,” he did not always support all Black people. He was known to occasionally cross paths with the Rev. Al Sharpton early in the activist’s career because he thought the boisterous activist was too irrational and violent at the time. When the notorious Tawana Brawley case made national headlines in 1987, he remained silent and did not take any action. In response to Brawley’s allegations that four white men abducted and assaulted her, Sharpton positioned himself as her protector. That was a fake, it turned out. Nevertheless, despite our differences, Sharpton noted in a statement following Butts’ passing on Friday, “We always came together.”
As a number of Black politicians, like the Rev. John Lewis, endorsed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008, Butts also drew criticism for his choice, saying it “was not and is not and will not become a race-based decision for me.” (Later, he said he was “overjoyed” when Obama won.)
Butts served as president of the State University of New York’s Old Westbury campus on Long Island from 1999 to 2020 in addition to serving as an Abyssinian preacher.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Morehouse graduate and fellow Baptist clergyman, praised Butts in a tweet. “My spiritual leader was Rev. Butts. I owe a lot of who I am today to him since he taught, trained, and encouraged me when I was just starting out in my career. His wife Patricia, his family, and the Abyssinian Baptist Church are all in our thoughts and prayers. Godspeed to his remembrance.”
Patricia, his wife, their three children, and their six grandchildren all survive Butts.
In a lecture given in 2006 at a gathering organized by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he declared, “You’ve got to do everything.” “schools, hospitals, residences, and churches. Take your people to the heavens so they can see what God has in store for them, and then bring them back to earth so they can see the work that has to be done.”