To Be Equal: Rev. Calvin Butts Took His Ministry to the Streets
“Reverend Butts worked more effectively than any other leader at the intersection of power, politics, and faith in New York. He understood the role of faith in our lives, especially in the Black community. But he also understood power and how to wield it and how to demand power from those who often sought to hoard it. And so he was a pragmatist, he was a realist, but he was also a dreamer.”
—Ford Foundation President Darren Walker
Last year, during a town hall on vaccines hosted by the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, of which the National Urban League is a co-founding partner, the Rev. Calvin Butts stated succinctly and powerfully the role of the church in Black communities, and the power of the church to shape those communities.
“The church is still the place of social cohesion for our community,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody says, it is true, and the Black pastor is still the most trusted of all. We have every reason to believe that’s true not only in terms of medicine but also in terms of the political life that sets the atmosphere. We just had one Black pastor elected to the Senate. We had one Black pastor, who is still the major Black, political leader of all time, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. We have Henry McNeal Turner, who was an AME Bishop down in Georgia, who was very powerful and Bill Gray, out of Philadelphia. So, we have, in our possession, the keys to unlock the doors of information to our community.”
Rev. Butts, who passed away last month at the age of 73, used these keys more broadly and effectively than perhaps any other pastor in recent history to transform his community and empower his congregation.
As the National Urban League prepares to relocate to Harlem, the community where our movement took root, we will be joining a community that has been profoundly and radically reshaped by Rev. Butts’ passion, his devotion, and his political and business savvy.
Rev. Butts served Abyssinian Baptist Church for 50 years, starting as a 22-year-old youth minister in 1972, fresh out of Morehouse College. The church, then led by Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, already had been built into one of the city’s most influential institutions by Proctor’s immediate predecessor, the dynamic 11-term congressman Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Rev. Butts became Abyssinian’s pastor in 1989. That same year, he founded Abyssinian Development Corporation with a single employee and a $50,000 grant, with a mission to rebuild Harlem “brick by brick and block by block.”
The non-profit has since invested $1 billion in the community, including the first high school constructed in Harlem in half a century, some of the neighborhood’s first national retail chain stores, one of its few full-service supermarkets, a department store, and a shopping center.
It also has developed more than 1,500 rental units in the Harlem area, most reserved for low-income residents.
The National Urban League is honoring Rev. Butts’ legacy with our own $242 million investment in Harlem, the 414,000-square-foot Urban League Empowerment Center, which includes 170 units of affordable housing with 70 supportive homes reserved for youth aging out of foster care.
As Rev. Butts explained to The New York Times in 2008, the church’s development work grew out of its tradition of social justice advocacy. The church was founded in 1808 by a group of Ethiopian merchant seamen and other Black worshippers who walked out of the First Baptist Church in Lower Manhattan after they were directed to sit in a segregated area. Abyssinia is a historic name for Ethiopia.
True to Abyssinian’s origin, Rev. Butts fought fiercely and fearlessly for civil rights and social justice. Outraged by the violence and misogyny he heard in rap music, he once commandeered a steam roller to crush a pole of cassette tapes and compact discs in front of his church. When rap fans blocked his path, he and his followers hopped a bus to midtown Manhattan and dumped the pole in front of Sony headquarters. “This is your garbage,” he shouted into a megaphone. “Take it back!”
He was a fierce critic of what he called “a culture of white supremacy” within the New York Police Department, calling rogue officers "ignorant savages who continue to prey upon our people as if we have no respect by virtue of our humanity or our citizenship.”
U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, who served as the youth pastor and then assistant pastor at Abyssinian in the 1990s, said, “Calvin Butts taught me how to take my ministry to the streets. The work of the Lord doesn’t stop at the church door. That’s where it starts. His pulpit was the public square.”
—November 11, 2022
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ChildWatch: Remembering Rev. Calvin O. Butts
When I was about seven years old, my family and I were visiting New York City and attending a large worship service at historic Abyssinian Baptist Church when I let go of my mother’s hand in the bustling crowd on the way to the balcony and suddenly became separated from her. I was overwhelmed with panic and fear. But friendly people summoned an usher who took me down to the pulpit, where the preacher embraced me and asked the congregation if anyone knew this child. My mother, who was frantically searching for me in the balcony, stood and said yes, and another usher quickly reunited us. I can still remember how terrifying it felt to be lost. But I also remember how adults at Abyssinian Baptist Church immediately surrounded me with care and concern, reassured me they would take care of me, and did not let go until I was safe.
Adults at Abyssinian Baptist Church have been a haven of care and safety for children in their Harlem community for generations. They have done so under the leadership of giants like Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Rev. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, and, for the last 33 years, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III. Rev. Butts was a good friend, a powerful preacher, a leader devoted to positively uplifting the Black community, and an effective voice for civil rights. When he passed away on October 28 we lost a champion for justice who had a transformative impact on his city and community.
Rev. Butts understood what it meant to grow up in New York City. As a child he lived in public housing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then in Queens before attending Morehouse College on a scholarship. After graduating from Morehouse he returned to New York to pursue a master’s degree in divinity from Union Theological Seminary, followed later by a doctor of ministry degree from Drew University. It was shortly after he entered seminary at Union that he was first hired by Rev. Proctor to serve at Abyssinian. He served first as a youth minister and then as assistant and executive minister before succeeding Rev. Proctor as Abyssinian’s Senior Pastor in 1989.
Social outreach, social uplift, and neighborhood involvement had been priorities for Abyssinian since its founding, and by the late 1980s the needs in its Harlem community were obvious and great. Some of Rev. Butts’s most significant impact came through the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which was created the same year he became pastor as a not-for-profit community and economic development corporation that would help the church respond to his call to “rebuild their community brick by brick and block by block,” with a mission to “increase the availability of quality housing to people of diverse incomes; enhance the delivery of social services, particularly to the homeless, elderly, families, and children; foster economic revitalization; enhance educational and developmental opportunities for youth; and build community capacity through civic engagement.” The Abyssinian Development Corporation developed and sponsored a Head Start program, the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, and the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, a state-of-the art public middle and high school facility which when it opened became the first new high school in Harlem in 50 years. They were buying and renovating housing in Harlem before it became fashionable, and their efforts to increase retail options and other opportunities for the community laid the cornerstone for the neighborhood improvement that outside developers were joining by the 1990s in what became the new Harlem Renaissance. Under Rev. Butts’s leadership the Abyssinian Development Corporation was responsible for over $1 billion in housing and commercial development in Harlem.
While he was leading Abyssinian, Rev. Butts also served as president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury for twenty years, expanding the diverse public college’s campus, graduate programs, and student enrollment. Among his other positions he was President of Africare NYC, a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, chairman of the Board of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and co-chair of the African American Men and Boys Initiative. He was also an outspoken critic of prolific alcohol and tobacco advertising in Harlem and other Black neighborhoods, violent and misogynistic rap lyrics, and other negative cultural influences, always striving towards better. Ted Shaw, former President and Director-Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and a member of Abyssinian, noted that Rev. Butts worked tirelessly for decades to improve every aspect of life for people in Harlem with his genuine “love of Black people”: “He was what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘a race man.’ He loved the struggle for equality, the literature and poetry of Black people, the various genres of Black music, the ways of Black folk.”
Rev. Butts loved his people, his congregation, and his entire community. He was committed to working faithfully in many spheres to bring justice and opportunity to all of God’s children, and Harlem and New York were changed by his vision and service.
—November 11, 2022
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