Butts, Calvin

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Butts, Calvin

July 22, 1949

Born in New York City, the son of a restaurant chef and an administrator of welfare services, Calvin Otis Butts III, a minister, attended public schools, becoming class president at Forest Hills High School in 1967. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduating in 1971, and then entered New York's Union Theological Seminary. In 1972, while at Union, he was recruited by leaders of the four-thousand-member Abyssinian Baptist Church, the largest and most prestigious church in the city's Harlem section. The church's influential pastor, Congressman Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had just died. Butts was hired as assistant to the new pastor, the Rev. Samuel Proctor.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Butts earned a reputation as a community leader and activist, as Powell had before him. Butts accepted the chair of Harlem's YMCA branch, toured neighborhood schools to report on education, called for hearings on police brutality, and in 1988 marched in the city's Bensonhurst section following the shooting of an African-American teenager. He also aroused controversy through his denunciations of liquor and tobacco billboard advertisements in black communities and his attacks on New York's political leaders, both white and black. (Butts once referred to New York's then mayor Ed Koch as a "racist" and "opportunist.") In 1986 one-third of the membership of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra refused to participate in the orchestra's annual concert at Abyssinian when Butts refused to distance himself from Louis Farrakhan after the Nation of Islam leader was accused of anti-Semitic remarks.

On July 1, 1989, following Proctor's retirement, Butts was elected chief pastor of Abyssinian. During the following years he devoted increased time to managing the church's endowment, employment, and welfare programs and attempting to attract investment in the community. One notable project in which Butts was involved was the effort during the early 1990s to reopen the Freedom National Bank, Harlem's leading financial institution, after it went bankrupt. However, Butts retained his activist posture, continuing his campaigns against alcohol and cigarette advertising and gambling. In 1993 he began a well-publicized crusade against rap music, which he denounced as violent and pornographic. Butts called for his congregation to bring in rap recordings, which he would "crush by steamroller." Butts also attracted significant attention through his maverick political stance, particularly his support of independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992. In 1998 Butts became the center of renewed controversy when he publicly accused New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani of being a racist.

In 1999 Butts was elected president of the Old West-bury campus of the State University of New York. He continued his role as chief pastor of the Abyssinian Church. In 2001 a photobiography of the Abyssinian Church was published.

See also Abyssinian Baptist Church; Farrakhan, Louis; Nation of Islam; Rap


Gore, Bob. We've Come This Far: The Abyssinian Baptist Church: A Photographic Journal. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2001.

Pooley, Eric. "The Education of Reverend Butts." New York (July 26, 1989): 42.

greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005