As Black History Month comes to an end, I must pay homage to an influential Black leader who recently passed away. That person is the late, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III of Abyssinia Baptist Church, which is my home church. He died on October 28. 2022 after losing his battle to cancer.
For over 30 years, Butts served as the senior pastor of Abyssinian in Harlem. He left a great spiritual, cultural and political legacy at Abyssinia in Harlem. This was truly seen by some of the people who attended his funeral. They included President Bill Clinton, Vice President Kamala Harris, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, former New York Congressman Charles Rangel, former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, New York State NAACP president Hazel Dukes, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and New York Attorney General Letitia James to name a few.
Although Butts was born on July 19, 1949, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He often spoke fondly from the pulpit about learning his ABCs and Math in a small, one-room Southern school with an old-fashioned Black teacher who disciplined him and who knew his mother. As a teenager, he grew up in New York City, and graduated from high school in Flushing, Queens. Next, Butts attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, and was influenced by Dr. Mays, the mentor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Butts' next stop was working as an office assistant in Abyssinian which was then under the leadership of the scholarly, Reverend Samuel Proctor. Then Butts attended Union Theological Seminary where he earned a Master’s degree in Church History in 1975. Afterwards, he got a Doctor of Ministry in church and public policy from Drew University. In 1989, the congregation named him the senior minister of Abyssinian.
Butts distinguished himself as a community activist in Harlem, a place where many immigrants from the Black Diaspora settled. He voiced his opposition to issues like the abundance of smoke shops in the community, the "stop and frisk" policy by the NYPD and overcrowding in schools. With a vision of the future, he began to build a high school in Harlem when there had been no new school in 50 years. The Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change was established in 1993.
Butts also led several organizations dedicated to empowerment of Black people here in the United States and abroad. He was Chairman of the Abyssinian Development Corporation where he built over 1,000 affordable housing units and commercial developments in Harlem, totaling over $1 billion; Chairman Emeritus of the Board of the National Black Leadership Commission on Health (Black Health); and president of Africare whose mission is to improve the quality of life in through created programs in food, water, the environment, health, emergency humanitarian aid, private-sector development, and governance.
For this work Butts received an honorary degree from Addis Ababa University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His educational awards stateside received The Medal for Distinguished Service from Teachers College, Columbia University and Man of the Year from the Alumni Association at his beloved Morehouse College.
He also worked as the President of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury for two decades until he retired in 2020. From the pulpit, Butts often said, “Education and faith are the Tigris and the Euphrates of our liberation: twin rivers at the source of our redemption.”
One fond memory I have of my former pastor happened during one Women’s Week program some years ago. His wife, Mrs. Patricia Butts, one of the coordinators for the program was ill. So, Rev. Butts took over the committee’s work. One visiting female pastor mentioned the then controversy involving R. Kelly and accusations of child pornography. She said that the Church must preach the Gospel, but it also had to speak about how Jesus comforted women. Butts was more direct.
“We men must love and respect our own women! Stop doing things that degrade them,” Butts said. “Yes, the rappers can become millionaires from calling us the ‘N’ word and the ‘b’ word. We want to lift up a higher standard which our Big Brother, Jesus, would approve of.”
Although I and countless others still mourn him, we will always love our pastor and how he fought for the wellbeing of all African Americans which made the world a better place for everyone.