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The Rev. Calvin Butts left behind a legacy of prayer and political activism

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Harlem's legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church, died on Friday at home in New York City. He was 73.
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The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Harlem's legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church, died on Friday at home in New York City. He was 73.

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor and powerbroker, died on Friday at home in New York City. He was 73. His son Calvin O. Butts IV, says the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

For more than 30 years, Butts was senior pastor at Harlem's legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church, a more than 200-year-old institution founded in 1808, which itself was a center of Harlem's spiritual and political life. Butts inherited the pulpit from a long line of charismatic ministers, including Adam Clayton Powell Sr., his son Adam Jr., and Samuel Proctor. The church was declared a New York City landmark in 1993.

With his erudite, sometimes pointed sermons, Butts ministered to Abyssinian's thousands of members and to visitors from around the globe.

Congregants crowded into the ornate Gothic church on 138th Street to hear Butts expound on social justice, economic parity and the need for neighbors to "love one another."

In a statement Friday, New York Mayor Eric Adams said Butts mentored him during some of the city's most difficult moments. "The City has lost a real giant," Adams said.

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.)

Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, speaks onstage during the André Leon Talley Celebration of Life at The Abyssinian Baptist Church on April 29 in New York City.
Bennett Raglin / Getty Images for the Estate of A
Getty Images for the Estate of A
Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, speaks onstage during the André Leon Talley Celebration of Life at The Abyssinian Baptist Church on April 29 in New York City.

He saw himself as a "race man" but didn't automatically back all Black people

When a Black man was killed while running from white assailants in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1985, there was fury in the Black community. Michael Griffith had been trying to escape being beaten to death by young white men who were outraged he was in "their" neighborhood. Butts used his prominence as Abyssinian's head pastor to (with others) push to have a special prosecutor try the case, which resulted in convictions for several of the assailants.

He persuaded Congressman John Conyers Jr., to create a commission to investigate police brutality in Black communities.

Though he saw himself as a "race man," Butts did not automatically back all Black people. He famously bumped heads with the Rev. Al Sharpton from time to time in the early days of Sharpton's career, finding the bombastic activist too militant and impulsive for comfort back then. He did not intervene or issue a statement when the infamous Tawana Brawley case became national news in 1987. Sharpton positioned himself as Brawley's champion when she claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by four white men. That turned out to be a hoax. But as Sharpton said in a statement on Butts' death Friday, "While we did not always agree, we always came together."

Butts also raised eyebrows in 2008 when he supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama (something several Black politicians, including the Rev. John Lewis did) proclaiming the endorsement "was not and is not and will not become a race-based decision for me." (Later he declared himself "overjoyed" with Obama's election.)

In addition to pastoring Abyssinian, Butts served as president of the State University of New York's Old Westbury campus on Long Island from 1999-2020.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, fellow Baptist minister and Morehouse alum, paid tribute to Butts in a tweet. "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. Love and prayers to his wife Patricia, his family, and Abyssinian Baptist Church. May God bless his memory."

Butts is survived by his wife, Patricia, three children and six grandchildren.

"You've got to do everything," he said in a 2006 speech at a meeting sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. "Churches, schools, health care, housing. You've got to take your people up to heaven so they can see what God has in store and then take them down to the ground so they can see what work is to be done."

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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