Butts, Calvin O. III 1949–
Calvin O. Butts, III 1949–
When the Reverend Calvin O. Butts, III, speaks from his pulpit in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, all of New York City and much of the United States listens. Butts uses the prestige of his position at one of the nation’s most famous churches to address a range of issues that are of importance to African Americans: the economy, politics, salvation, and even rap music. Many observers speculate that he will parlay his prominence into political power, much as former Abyssinian pastor-turned-U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. once did. With a large popular following and the attention of New York City’s media, Butts has become one of the most important African American leaders in the Big Apple and in the nation as a whole. But to understand Butts one must first understand the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Formed in 1808, the Manhattan church—named after the ancient word for Ethiopia—has long been a center for social activism. It became prominent after Powell, Jr., took over the job of head pastor from his father in 1937, and used the church’s bully pulpit to lash out at injustice. Organizing sit-ins and boycotts and delivering thunderous orations against injustice of all kinds, Powell helped to bring about the end of segregation in New York. Those tools also helped launch his political career, which led him to the U.S. Congress.
Butts inherited Powell’s legacy of activism, though the church’s role in the community has evolved. Abyssinian now encourages the economic development of the black community and rehabilitates decaying Harlem buildings for use as shelters and affordable housing. It is a powerful institution boasting more than 5,000 parishioners. Butts is the well-respected financial and spiritual head of it all.
Butts spent the first eight years of his life on the Lower East Side of New York City. His father worked as a chef and his mother was employed in the city’s welfare department. In 1957, his family moved to Queens, New York. During the summers of his early years, Butts’s parents sent him south to visit with his grandmothers, who lived near each other in rural Georgia. In a New York Times Magazine article, Butts recalled attending church in the South with his relatives. He was quoted as saying that back in New York City, his father instilled in him racial awareness: “My father was the kind who would say, ‘If a black man opens a store, go shop in it.’”
Butts carried his father’s teachings with him while pursuing an education. Following graduation from Flushing High School,
Born Calvin Otis Butts, III, 1949, in New York City; son of Calvin (a cook) and a government clerk; married Patricia; children: three. Education: Morehouse College, B.A., 1971; Union Theological Seminary, M. Div., 1975; Drew Theological School, D. Min., 1982.
Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York, NY, executive minister, 1972–89, pastor, 1989—.
Selected awards: Received more than 300 civic awards and honorary degrees.
Addresses: Office — Abyssinian Baptist Church, 132 W. 138th St., Harlem, NY 10030.
where he was class president in his senior year, Butts was accepted at Morehouse College in 1967, an explosive time in the American civil rights struggle. Clad in a coat and tie and carrying a briefcase, Butts attended lectures, rallies, and speeches at Morehouse by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black leaders. Sharing examples of his early activism with a New York Times Magazine writer, Butts revealed that one his most passionate moments occurred after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Butts rioted and actually helped firebomb a store. Shortly after these actions, however, Butts renounced his capitulation to violence.
Just before graduation, Butts was approached by two seminary students trying to recruit students for their school. Sold, he enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. At the fairly liberal school, he raised some eyebrows by delivering a sermon in which he condemned homosexuality. Butts took the position that the Bible is explicit in denouncing homosexuality as a sin; however, he has since defended the social and civil rights of gays. In Christian Century, Butts was quoted as saying, “Gays and lesbians have to be affirmative about who they are.... We are all sinners saved by grace.”
While in his first year at Union, Butts got the break that would lead him to his career at Abyssinian. As he recalled in New York magazine, “I was walking down the hall, and the dean said, ‘Hey, Butts. Adam Powell just died. There’s a new pastor at Abyssinian, and he’s looking for a couple of guys to work with him. You interested?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I never planned this, but I never ran from it.”
William Epps, the man who recruited the 22-year-old Butts for Abyssinian in 1972, indicated in New York Times Magazine that he chose Butts because “he had a passion to do something to correct the conditions that confronted our community.” As junior minister, Butts’s responsibilities included making hospital visits and conducting funeral services. But from the very beginning he, like Powell before him, realized that Abyssinian provided a great foundation from which to preach, including to an audience outside the church. Indeed, Butts learned early to be aware of the political consequences of his actions. In the early 1980s, Butts was vocal in opposing incidents of police brutality. In fact, he was credited in the New York Times with being the “catalyst” behind the 1983 Congressional hearings on New York’s police problems.
New York Times Magazine summed up many of Butts’s attitudes in a 1991 article: “He would order the enforcement of laws against public nuisance: gambling, public drinking, and public urination. He would set curfews for teenagers and confiscate cars in which loud music is being played. His strategy would find support among criminologists who argue that a sense of public order reduces crime. He’s also shrewd about the political outrage it would cause. ‘On some of that stuff, you’d have fights with the unions and the civil liberties groups, but I would win the support of New Yorkers—black and white,’ Butts says. ‘You’d get cooperation because people would begin to see the difference.’”
In the tough world of New York City politics, Butts is emerging as a skilled player. “On different issues, he has been willing over the years to take on such prominent New Yorkers as [former archbishop] John Cardinal O’Connor, [former Mayor] Edward I. Koch, and [District Attorney] Robert M. Morgenthau,” noted the New York Times. For a time Butts served on the board of the Harlem Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), then in the process of expansion. Butts gained recognition for having pulled strings with the right politicians to get $750,000 in city money for the project.
Still, Butts was condemned for failing to criticize Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, when Farrakhan called Judaism a “gutter religion,” in 1986. In fact, one-third of the members of the New York Philharmonic orchestra refused to play at Abyssinian because of Butts’s stand on the controversial minister. In 1991, Butts told the Times Magazine that he was, in fact, dismayed by the attack on Judaism, but that no one asked him to separate that comment from Farrakhan’s other teachings, which Butts has been a proponent. Butts told Jewish leaders, “I will not be your boy.”
Butts has intervened in other political standoffs when it seemed prudent, as in 1987, when he acted as a liaison between then-Governor Mario Cuomo’s office and black lawyers involved in the explosive Howard Beach case of 1987. In the incident, three black men who had wandered in a white, blue-collar New York City neighborhood after having car trouble were attacked by four white teens. One black man was killed as he tried to escape across a highway and was struck by a car. The assault and death made national headlines.
Equally important, Butts has refrained from mediating when issues are unclear, as in the 1988 Tawana Brawley case, in which a young black girl claimed to have been victimized and raped by “several” white men. The case quickly turned into a farce, with prosecutors charging a hoax, and some black leaders, notably the well-known, flamboyant Reverend Al Sharpton, criticizing the police, courts, and politicians for not doing enough to find the perpetrators. Butts was savvy enough to avoid a confrontation in which no winners could emerge. New York magazine quoted him as saying, “[E]verybody needs to tone down the rhetoric.”
Butts’s political stance became clearer in the early 1990s, as a series of elections forced him to define his views. In the middle of the 1992 presidential campaign, Butts backed wealthy independent candidate Ross Perot, to the shock of many.
Butts explained his support of Perot to the New York Times by saying the Democrats had ignored the needs of blacks, as well as ignoring Jesse Jackson. “For Jesse Jackson to be ignored is a further indication that [Democrat] Bill Clinton is no more than a neo-conservative trying to dress himself in liberal clothes.” Butts answered his critics in the article by saying, “Let’s suppose I am wrong about Perot, and he turns out to be a bigot and a Rambostyle anti-civil libertarian, as some have suggested. … Well then, I would abandon ship right away because I would have made a mistake. But you never advance or move forward unless you take a risk.” Butts served as co-chair of the Perot New York campaign for one week before the Texan billionaire dropped out of the race. One year after the election, Butts told the Times that promoting Perot was “the biggest mistake I probably ever made.”
Throughout the 1992 campaign, Butts continued to criticize the two major parties, telling the New York Times, “The Republicans have ignored people of African descent. The Democrats have taken us for granted.” He endorsed little-known independent Ron Daniels while conceding that most blacks would end up voting for Clinton, saying, “The two best reasons for voting for Bill Clinton and AlGore are [President] George Bush and [Vice president] Dan Quayle.”
Certainly, when the issue has suited him, Butts has delivered inflammatory rhetoric. For instance, when cigarette and alcohol manufacturers advertised their products on Harlem billboards in the face of evidence that their products were harming blacks disproportionately to the rest of the population, Butts called on them to stop. When they refused, he began a program of whitewashing the billboards. Fortune magazine quoted him as saying of G. Heileman Brewing, manufacturer of a malt liquor with high alcohol content that is favored by blacks, “This is obviously a company that has no sense of moral or social responsibility.”
In 1993, Butts also blasted rap musicians, and in so doing, attracted a great deal of additional notoriety. “If the rappers think that they can raise the standards of their music and unite with our community for our redemption, then we are willing to hear and willing to work,” he told the New York Times in 1993. “But I want you to know that we will not stand for vile, ugly, low, abusive, and rough music.” In order to dramatize his objections, Butts planned to crush boxes of rap music compact discs under a steamroller.
Defenders of rap claimed that the music is not problematic, but the conditions in the neighborhoods in which too many blacks live is. From that perspective, proponents of the genre suggested that inhibiting freedom of speech by banning rap is not a viable solution. Butts agreed that rap itself is not bad since it is derived from the black oral tradition. But certain forms of rap are offensive, he told the New York Times. “To call oneself a nigger after our long history of struggle is not redemptive. It is not helpful to have black women bumping and grinding their almost-bare buttocks.” In the end, Butts did not ride the steamroller, but he did dump cartons of “offensive” compact discs on the doorstep of Sony Music headquarters in downtown Manhattan. More importantly, he raised an issue and was partly responsible for the national debate that has since surrounded rap music.
As a result of his high-profile stance on rap and other issues, Butts is often mentioned as a potential candidate for Public Advocate or what was once known as City Council President. He has also explored a run for the mayor’s office and for statewide office. In 1993, he stated in the New York Times, “If the people of this community or the city of New York or the state of New York were to come and say, ‘You know, Rev. Butts, you really ought to consider becoming a United States Senator,’ or something like that. . . and the Lord says, ‘This is another extension of what I’d like you to do,’ then I’d do it.”
Whatever he chooses to do, Butts is sure to approach it in his customary manner—a combination of fiery combativeness and pragmatic political savvy. “I came from the left,” Butts, the 20th pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church told the New York Times Magazine in 1991. “I moved to the center because I have this institution.” Where he will move to next seems limited only by his ambition.
Christian Century, December 15, 1993, pp. 1264–65.
Fortune, July 15, 1991, p. 20.
Newsweek, January 12, 1987, p. 25; March 14, 1988, pp. 22–3.
New York, June 26, 1989, p. 42.
New York Times, December 8, 1991, p. 54; July 16, 1992, p. B1; July 20, 1992, p. 33; June 5, 1993, p. 23; June 6, 1993, p. 39.
New York Times Magazine, January 20, 1991, p. 18.
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