Butts was senior pastor at Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem for decades and worked with many different political leaders.
The Rev Calvin O Butts III, who fought poverty and racism and skillfully navigated New York’s power structure as pastor of Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist church, died on Friday at age 73, the church announced.
“The Butts family and entire Abyssinian Baptist church membership solicit your prayers for us in our bereavement,” the church said on its website. No cause of death was given.
Butts began serving as a youth minister at Abyssinian in 1972 and was senior pastor there for more than 30 years. He also served as president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, on Long Island, from 1999 to 2020.
His post at Abyssinian gave Butts one of the most prominent pulpits in the US. The church traces its roots to 1808 when a group of Black worshippers who refused to accept segregation at the First Baptist church of New York City left to form their own congregation. The church’s current home on 138th Street in Harlem is a massive Tudor and Gothic revival structure dedicated in 1923 and designated a city landmark in 1993.
Earlier pastors at Abyssinian included Adam Clayton Powell Sr and his son Adam Clayton Powell Jr, the first African American to be elected to Congress from New York.
Butts was known for working with political leaders across the ideological spectrum.
In 1995, the Republican state governor, George Pataki, appointed Butts to two state boards that controlled economic development grants to businesses.
That same year, Butts hosted then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro at Abyssinian, where the fatigues-wearing communist received a hero’s welcome.
Butts surprised many by endorsing Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, saying the endorsement “was not and is not and will not become a race-based decision for me”.
Butts later said he was “overjoyed” when Obama was elected as the first Black president of the United States that November.
Butts’s impact extended far beyond his church’s walls. In 1989, he established the non-profit Abyssinian Development Corporation to develop moderate-income housing, retail, schools and other projects in the surrounding neighborhood.
Butts helped mobilize church leaders to support programs for Aids patients in the 1980s and more recently set up a Covid-19 vaccination clinic at Abyssinian to encourage community residents to get immunized against the virus.
“The kind of conspiracies we saw in the past were real but they do not exist about these vaccines,” Butts said last year in a reference to the racist history of episodes like the Tuskegee syphilis study that left many Black people mistrustful of medical authorities.
Butts courted controversy in the 1990s by preaching against violent and misogynist rap lyrics. He had parishioners bring recordings of the offensive music to church to be steamrolled in June 1993 but then ended up dumping the CDs in front of a Sony office in midtown Manhattan instead of smashing them.
“Rap is an extremely powerful art form,” Butts said at a debate with the rapper Ice-T. “It comes from the creativity of African people. And anything that comes from our creativity is powerful, and it grabs. And therefore we want to make sure that as it grabs it also shapes in a constructive and redemptive way our young people to continue our progress against the evils that try to crush us.”
Drew University mourns the loss of the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III T’82, who passed away this morning at the age of 73.
Butts, who received a doctor of ministry from Drew Theological School, was a lifelong advocate for social justice and civil rights.
He most recently served the Harlem community as senior pastor of the renowned Abyssinian Baptist Church and chair of the Abyssinian Development Corporation.
Simultaneously with his role in the Abyssinian organizations, Butts served as president of SUNY College at Old Westbury for two decades, earning president emeritus status; established several schools; served on numerous boards and commissions; and spearheaded numerous boycotts against institutions that practice racist policies and employment discrimination.
Throughout his career, Butts earned recognition from his alma mater. In 1999, he received Drew’s alumni Distinguished Service Award. In 2021, he received an honorary doctor of ministry degree and served as Drew’s Commencement speaker.
In his Commencement address to Drew graduates across the College of Liberal Arts, Theological School, and Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, Butts asked the poignant question, “What is character?”
“You want to measure your education? You want to know if you really got what I got from Drew? Then measure it according to those standards—is your character strong? Oh, you learned something. You can’t come through Drew and not learn something. You can’t come through Drew and be sitting in front of me listening to my speech and not have learned something. And you’ll be able to go out and earn a living. You’ll find a job. It may not be the job you want, but maybe it’s the job you need. But will you bring the character, hopefully that came from an education at Drew, into that job? … Character. I hope that Drew has drilled that into you.” Butts remained a revered and respected figure in the Theological School community.
“Dr. Calvin Butts was a leader of unusual gift and unprecedented drive in his roles at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church—the oldest African American Baptist congregation in New York City—and as President of SUNY Old Westbury,” said Gary V. Simpson, associate professor of preaching and pastoral formation at Drew Theological School.
“Either of these responsibilities is a major achievement in its own right. That Dr. Butts did them for over 20 years simultaneously is evidence of his unique gift. Dr. Butts was a significant part of New York City leadership, creating partnerships with leaders, institutions, and organizations for the city’s welfare. His loss leaves great sorrow and a large void for the people of New York and the nation. Much gratitude and many prayers for the Butts family and all who will assuredly benefit from his legacy.”
He Formed The Abyssinian Development Corporation To Revitalize Harlem
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., on July 19, 1949 to working class parents, Butts and his family moved to New York City when he was a child. After graduating from public high school in Queens, he went South, to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he followed in the footsteps of Morehouse men such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader Julian Bond and Surgeon General David Satcher. He returned to New York to receive a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary and, eventually, a doctorate from Drew University.
Butts began working at Abyssinian as an office assistant while he was a young parent in graduate school, and started moving up the church’s hierarchy. In 1989, he was named Abyssinian’s head pastor.
At the time, Harlem was rich in history but poor in resources. The same year he became head pastor, Butts formed the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which aimed to create viable housing and businesses that would include Harlem residents, many of whom were in danger of being pushed out by looming gentrification. (Some would argue that with his development partnerships, Butts was merely hastening the inevitable.)
Political as well as pastoral, Butts sometimes was part of a circle that included powerful politicians and civic leaders, such as former Congressman Charles Rangel, former Manhattan Borough Chief Percy Sutton and former Mayor David Dinkins. (He criticized them when he felt he had to and worked with them when they needed each other.)
Tributes to Butts poured in Friday.