Butts, Calvin O.

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Calvin O. Butts

Religious leader, activist, college president, lecturer

For more than thirty years, Calvin O. Butts, one of America's leading religious leaders and social activists, has devoted his life to service in pastoral leadership and community activism. Butts, an African American and native New Yorker, has made contributions to the Harlem, New York community that have benefited the citizens, but not without assistance and associations that transcend racial, religious, and political boundaries. His personal, professional, and community life show his lifelong commitment to public service.

Calvin O. Butts was born in 1949 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His father was a cook at a Black Angus steak-house and his mother was an administrator in a city welfare office. His family moved to Queens when he was eight years old, and he was bussed to school in Forest Hills in the midst of anti-busing demonstrations and widespread protests against integration. Flushing High School was mostly white, but Butts was elected president of his senior class. After high school in 1967, Butts attended Morehouse College and earned his BA. in philosophy in 1972. As a militant and civil rights activist, Butts participated in many activities in support of rights for African Americans. A defining point occurred when fellow students from Union Theological Seminary in New York recruited Butts in 1972.

During his first year of seminary, Butts was invited to be an assistant to Samuel Proctor, the new senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, who had replaced the deceased Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Butts earned his master of divinity degree in church history in 1975 then continued his education at Drew University where he earned his doctor of ministry degree in church and public policy in 1982. Butts taught urban affairs and served as an adjunct instructor in the African Studies Department at City College in New York. He also taught black church history at Fordham University.

In 1976 Butts became assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church under the leadership of Samuel Proctor who had become senior pastor in 1972 following the death of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. At the time, the church's finances were in disarray and the membership was waning, but Proctor rebuilt the congregation and instituted new programs and services. When Butts became senior pastor in 1987, he had the burden of living up to the accomplishments of significant others who had carried a progressive torch for Abyssinian and the community. For example, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who took over the church in 1908, believed in pride, self-reliance, discipline, and black unity and led the congregation accordingly, combining theology with politics. He built the still-standing edifice on property purchased by his parishioners in 1920 on 138th Street, the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. His successor, Adam Jr., took over the church in 1937.

Living up to the outspoken, charismatic, make-things-happen attitude set by predecessors is nearly effortless for Calvin Butts, who in his own right is a controversial, outspoken preacher-politician who addresses critical public issues and faces significant criticism. The difference between Butts and his predecessors, however, is his decision to forego public office. While Butts said he has wanted to be mayor of New York City since he was a third grader, he decided to aim his energies outside the political spectrum and deliver messages to the masses from the pulpit and lecturer podiums. His loyalty to his own race has been challenged because of his racial and political alliances in spite of significant, positive changes for citizens in Harlem, New York. Butts cites himself as an example of the new black preacher-politician, one who is taking the next steps to the work started by Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1999, Butts became president of State of New York (SUNY) College at Old Westbury. Butts has served as keynote speaker at colleges, universities, and professional and governmental organizations and associations around the world. He promotes education, which he connects to economic empowerment. Butts is the recipient of several honorary degrees and recognition awards, including "Man of the Year" from his undergraduate alma mater. He also serves on boards of directors of several civic, cleric, and business organizations. Butts was also the president of the Council of Churches in the United States.

When Butts first became pastor of Abyssinian in 1987, he was newly married and lived near the church with his family. He and his three little children often interacted with neighborhood youth, and he became familiar with residents and aspects of the torn-down neighborhood. In that setting, Buts worked as an administrator, reformer, organizer, and developer. In 1989, he formed the non-profit Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC) to improve the lives of central Harlem citizens. He forged strong friendships and alliances with government officials and executive officers of large corporations, which helped him transform Harlem.

The ADC began with a $50,000 grant and a group of Abyssinian parishioners with its headquarters in the basement of the church. Acquiring assets totaling more than $300 million, ADC built housing in Harlem for the homeless, senior, and low-to-moderate income citizens. The non-profit, community-based organization also purchased land with the help of local government loans and developed a 53,000-square-foot Pathmark supermarket in central Harlem. Several New York politicians strongly objected to the supermarket deal because ADC does not own the supermarket and did not realize much profit from the grocery chain owners. ADC was also instrumental in starting a middle and high school in 1993. After eleven locations, the academy held its ribbon cutting ceremony in 2004 to celebrate its brand new, permanent space. The Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change was the first new high school built in Harlem in fifty years. Immediately after the ceremony plans began shaping up for a new lower academy.

To help promote community health awareness, ADC participated in a health expo in 1999 entitled "Break the Silence". During the expo, Butts opted to undergo multiple screenings for chronic diseases, ranging from high blood pressure to HIV/AIDS. In its continued efforts to transform Harlem, ADC led protest marches through Harlem in October 2003. In December 2004, Butts and the GreenPoint Foundation made an in-kind donation of fourteen wheelchairs to North General Hospital, a voluntary community hospital located in central Harlem. When the marches resumed in March 2005, men and women of Abyssinian marched with Butts through the streets of Harlem with the assertion to "Respect Our Women, Protect Our Children." The goal was to whitewash billboards to rid the community of negative advertising. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, ADC is nationally renowned and has one hundred employees. The nonprofit community organization commands an operating budget of over $57 million. While Butts and ADC made significant strides in revitalizing central Harlem, Butts has all along prompted controversy and criticism among African Americans regarding his stand in New York politics. Over the years many viewed him as moving from liberal Democrat toward networking among more conservative Republicans.

Back in 1992, Butts was criticized for supporting Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani in his successful bid for mayor of New York. During the U.S. crisis on September 11, 2001, Mayor Giuliani called upon Butts to support the rescue efforts. Butts later served on the board of directors of the September 11 Fund. In 2004, Butts was among the leaders who were congratulated in the September 11 final report for proficiency in fundraising and distribution of funds to the victims' families. Butts served as a member of Republican Governor Pataki's transition team as well.

Butts serves on the boards of directors of major corporations and organizations in New York, such as the Empire State Development Corporation, Central Park Conservancy, and the United Way. He has engaged in partnership with a mega developer on a commercial project. He has served as president of the Council of Churches in New York, a white-dominated body. His social circle includes the president of American Express, president of United Way, president of Time Warner, and the vice chairman of the Travelers Group. Butts sees in these relationships economic assistance for the black community, support he can access personally, one-on-one. In spite of charges that Butts has sold out to whites and Republicans, he stands by his influential style and ability to form alliances, which he believes garners support for his mission. Butts acknowledges the political shift in his thinking, but he sees it as positive and congruent with his work.


Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on July 19
Graduates from Flushing High School
Earns B.A. degree in Philosophy from Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia
Earns M.Div. in church history from Union Theological Seminary in New York
Earns D.Min. in church and public policy
Becomes senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church
Forms Abyssinian Development Corporation to improve Harlem citizens' quality of life
Becomes president of SUNY College at Old Westbury
Serves on the September 11th Fund Board of Directors
Writes The Harlem Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections from the Abyssinian Baptist Church; writes My Testimony: Stories of Faith and Good Fortune from Members of the Abyssinian Baptist Church

Butts is the author of The Harlem Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections from the Abyssinian Baptist Church and My Testimony: Stories of Faith and Good Fortune from Members of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, both of which were sold at auction in 2004. In October 2005, the church published Food for the Soul: Recipes and Stories from the Congregation of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.



Boyd, Herb. "Harlem's First New High School in 50 Years." The Black World Today, 2 February 2004.

Browne, J. Zamgba. "Jamaica Business Resource Center Spreads It Around." New York Amsterdam News 95 (16 December 2004): 9.

Friedlander, Blaine P., Jr. "Butts Outlines American Dream at Development Conference." Cornell Chronicle, 24 July 2003.

Moorer, Talise D. "Harlem Pastor's Wheel Deal Meets Needs at North General." New York Amsterdam News 95 (16 December 2004): 40.

                                    Shelhea C. Owens