Remembering Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts: A champion of political and social justice

Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts left a legacy spanning religious, business, academia and health care, among other areas

Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts lll, the longtime pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, will be remembered for far more than his church leadership.

Butts demonstrated stewardship beyond the pulpit with his strong advocacy of political and social justice for all. With the aims of promoting economic equity, stemming the spread of HIV at the height of the crisis and helping revitalize Harlem, the true mark of Butts’ massive influence will live beyond him.

Butts battled pancreatic cancer and died at his Harlem home on Friday, prompting many of his fellow faith leaders including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sen. Raphael Warnock to share tributes in his honor. 

“Reverend Butts was my pastor. He mentored, trained, and inspired me at the beginning of my career; I owe much of who I am today to him,” Warnock, a Democrat, said in tweet featuring a photo of the two.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Rev. Calvin Butts, and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., are joined at podium by other church and community leaders from New York, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

Using his massive influence in the inner-city, Butts took up a heavily-publicized campaign against Hip-Hop music in the early 1990s, decrying the violent and misogynistic lyrics of certain groups. Among his targets were notable acts such as the 2 Live Crew, N.W.A. and Geto Boys, among others.

Butts considered the music created by these acts and their counterparts to be “filth,” according to Slate, joining other Black critics of rap such as C. Delores Tucker in the fight.

Some outlets over the years framed Butts as a firebrand of sorts, pointing to his earlier criticism of the LGBTQ community as HIV spread rampantly through the nation. However, he became part of public health efforts to slow the spread and supported clean needle programs. Butts helped organize a growing legion of church leaders who tossed aside their moderate political positions and leaned into actions that were unexpected from the Black church at the time.

In 1989, Butts formed the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), which oversaw widespread development across Harlem, including one of the first full-service supermarkets in the Manhattan borough, a department store and several retail stores. The corporation leased the properties largely to low-income residents and Black small business owners.

In 1993, Butts established the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change in partnership with the ADC, the Manhattan High Schools Superintendent’s Office, and New Visions for the Public Schools according to the school’s website. The Harlem school stands today as a symbol of Butts’ devotion to the betterment of his people. Butts also was instrumental in creating the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School.

As he did during the HIV crisis decades ago, Butts launched efforts to assist his community against the ravages of COVID-19, including placing a vaccination clinic at Abyssinian. Butts was instrumental in speaking to skeptical members of his communities in embracing the vaccine and promoting its safety.

Adding to what is already an inspiring legacy of service to the church and education, Butts devoted his time and energy to the academic achievements of college students. From 1999 to 2020, Butts was the president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. During his leadership tenure, Butts pushed forth new graduate programs and helped diversify the student body at the university. 

Calvin Otis Butts III was born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1949, and later moved with his family to Queens, N.Y. After graduating from Flushing High School in 1967, Butts entered Morehouse College where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. The Kappa Alpha Psi, Inc. brother would go on to earn a Master of Divinity in church history degree from Union Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry church and public policy from Drew University.

Butts became a member of Abyssinian Baptist Church, which owns the distinction of being the largest Black church in New York City. He began serving as a youth minister at Abyssinian in 1972 before being elevated to senior pastor, a position he held for over three decades. Over that time, Butts emerged as both a dedicated faith leader and a devoted community activist in Harlem and abroad.

Just as he mentored Sen. Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, early in his theological career, Butts helped guide Bishop Darren Ferguson, the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Orange, N.J. Ferguson also oversees the re-entry program for the Orange Police Department.

The Rev. Calvin Butts, left, makes a point in a show of support for the defendants of the Central Park trial outside the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan in New York on July 24, 1990. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Ferguson’s role at the police department is fitting as he knows a lot about second chances. Between 1999 and 2005, Ferguson was an intern at Abyssinian via the Youth Turn program by way of the NY Theological Seminary. Youth Turn was run by C. Vernon Mason and the program was set up to tackle gang activity in New York.

“I was one of 10 men selected and was stationed at Abyssinian in 1999,” Ferguson shared with theGrio. “By late 2000, their youth minister, Rev. Clinton Miller, left to pastor a church in Brooklyn, and Dr. Butts selected me to serve as a youth minister. I was still on parole.” 

Ferguson adds, “In addition, unlike the other associate ministers who served at the church, I had not yet earned my Master’s Degree. In spite of my reminding him of those facts. he announced me as the new Associate Minister for Youth Services in February of 2001.” 

The role gave Ferguson an opportunity to reach back into the community, continuing the path that Butts set him on in 1999.

“Dr. Butts gave me the freedom to work with young people in the community.  He gave me the leeway to use my creativity and knowledge of Harlem to work with the youth there and to bring literally hundreds of young men and women who were gang affiliated or at-risk into the church to minister to them in various and non-traditional ways,” Ferguson said.  

Ferguson shared a personal story of how Butts assisted him through a tragedy. Ferguson said that Butts was there for him when his first wife died and supported him in moving into a new place to live and begin anew.

While Butts had his earlier issues with Hip-Hop music, he always maintained that it had a purpose. Putting that thought into action, Butts supported Ferguson’s Hip-Hop ministry efforts and later had Ferguson join him at SUNY.

“In 2007, Dr. Butts ordained me on June 24 of that year and a month later also gave me the opportunity to serve at SUNY College at Old Westbury,” Ferguson said. “I was able to use the skills that I had sharpened at Abyssinian to serve as Assistant to The Dean of Students and Coordinator of Student Engagement.”

From left, Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rev. Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Church, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, and New York Knicks Steve Francis pose for a photograph in New York, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

Ferguson concluded his remembrance of Butts in a moving fashion.

“I can honestly say that Dr. Butts took a chance on a Returned Citizen who spent nearly nine years in a maximum security prison and provided me the grace and space to be the man and Pastor that I am today,” Ferguson said.

“Without the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III being obedient to God and calling me, teaching me, mentoring me, and supporting me, there is no Bishop Darren Ferguson.  I am forever indebted to the man who took a chance on me when conventional wisdom would have said not to. I am heartbroken that he is gone but so very grateful that he has been a part of my life.”

If the triumph of a person can be measured simply by the works they leave behind when their physical life ends, Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III is most certainly insured of a legacy that, simply put, will remain forever aspirational.

The Rev. Calvin Butts, center, addresses the congregation gathered to hear the speech by Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, while Juanita Vera, at far right, interprets for Castro inside Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, Sunday evening, Oct. 22, 1995 in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

While the limelight never appeared to be what Butts sought after, his leadership in times of crisis elevated his status as a public figure. Days after the 9/11 attack in 2001, Butts led Abyssinian Baptist in prayer as the fires of the felled Twin Towers were still smoldering. A portion of his prayer, still resonant even today, can be read below, courtesy of Lutheran Forum:

Thee will I love, my Strength, my Tower,

Thee will I love, my hope, my joy,

Thee will I love with all my power,

With ardor time shall ne’er destroy;

Thee will I love, O Light Divine,

So long as life is mine.

Those words capture the wide scope of love and empathy Rev. Dr. Butts held for his people and community, and for all those who dared to live boldly by faith in the face of adversity.

May Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts rest in peace.

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