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The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of iconic Harlem church, dies at 73

Rev. Butts used his political savvy to advocate for social change and renew Harlem

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III in April. (Bennett Raglin/Getty Images)

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, who for three decades pressed for social change with political savvy and occasionally combative tactics as leader of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, died on Oct. 28 in New York City. He was 73.

The church’s website announced Rev. Butts’ death. No cause was given.

Though he never held elected office, Rev. Butts saw himself in the mold of one of his predecessors, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who became a leading voice on civil rights in Congress while serving as Abyssinian’s pastor.

Rev. Butts often recalled seeing Powell preach as a teenager.

“I was amazed,” he told the New York Times in 1987. “He was a larger-than-life figure, and people were in love with him. He was prophet, priest and king.”

In leading Abyssinian, one of the nation’s oldest Black churches and the first in New York state, Rev. Butts sometimes took a combative approach to activism.

In 1990, he led a campaign to whitewash Harlem billboards that advertised cigarette and alcohol products, telling Fortune magazine that G. Heileman Brewing, a malt liquor manufacturer behind some of the ads, “is obviously a company that has no sense of moral or social responsibility.”

Later in the decade, Rev. Butts took on rap music, threatening to use a bulldozer to steamroll over CDs and tapes with lyrics that infuriated him by degrading women and dehumanizing Black people. Instead, he and his supporters dumped the music in front of Sony Records.

“This is your garbage,” he said. “Take it back.”

Rev. Butts was often unpredictable, especially when it came to politics. He bickered frequently with David Dinkins, New York’s first Black mayor, accusing him of being inaccessible. In 1992, he endorsed independent candidate Ross Perot for president, saying that Bill Clinton was “no more than a neoconservative trying to dress himself in liberal clothes.”

In the 2008 presidential election, he supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama, who became the nation’s first Black president. The decision, he said, “was not and is not and will not become a race-based decision for me.”

But Rev. Butts was also politically shrewd, working closely with elected officials on both sides of the aisle, particularly in his role as chairman of the Abyssinian Development Corp., an offshoot of the church that has developed more than $1 billion in housing, commercial property and neighborhood services, including a new high school in Harlem.

Rev. Butts hosted Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He also invited New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, to speak. Pataki later appointed him to two state economic development boards. Rev. Butts was blunt in favoring economic development over preserving social services, an objectionable opinion to other members of the clergy, who also worried about gentrification in Harlem.

“I think the Republicans are in an excellent position to make the argument and demonstrate that you can do as much through economic development as you can through social welfare programs — in fact more,” he told the New York Times in 1995. “Because you break a dependency cycle, you increase responsibility, people have a greater sense of ownership and you create jobs.”

Calvin Otis Butts III was born in Bridgeport, Conn., on July 19, 1949, and grew up on the Lower East Side of New York and then in the borough of Queens. His father was a chef and his mother worked in social services.

“My father was the kind who would say, ‘If a Black man opens a store, go shop in it,’ ” he told the New York Times in 1991.

After graduating from Flushing High School in 1967, Rev. Butts attended Morehouse College, a historically Black university in Atlanta. It was the late 1960s and the country was mired in racial strife. In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Butts joined the riots and admitted to helping firebomb a store. He soon vowed to never resort to violence again.

Rev. Butts moved back to New York after graduating in 1971 with a philosophy degree. He enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary, which tilted liberal and supported gays and lesbians. Rev. Butts, in a sermon that shocked some of his classmates, argued that homosexuality was a sin — an opinion he continued to carry, telling Christian Century in 1991 that “Gays and lesbians have to be affirmative about who they are … We are all sinners saved by grace.”

At age 22, Rev. Butts landed a job as a junior minister at Abyssinian, making house calls and conducting funerals. He became pastor in 1989. He was credited with creating affordable housing, building retail centers that provided jobs, and never wavering from his role as a fierce advocate for Harlem. He also served as president of SUNY College at Old Westbury.

Still, there were controversies.

In 1986, Rev. Butts refused to condemn Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan after he called Judaism a “gutter religion.” To protest his silence, members of the New York Philharmonic orchestra refused to play at Abyssinian. Rev. Butts defended himself, saying nobody had asked him to condemn the remarks.

He told Jewish leaders, “I will not be your boy,” according to the New York Times.

But Rev. Butts was also praised for his roles in being an early advocate for AIDS treatment and for supporting gays and lesbians despite his stated beliefs. In 1991, he criticized then-Cardinal John O’Connor for not condemning spectators who jeered gay marchers during a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“I happen to believe that the divine imperative does not allow for homosexuality. But having said that,” Rev. Butts told Newsday, “the gay person should not be discriminated against nor should he or she be the victim of senseless violence or ridicule.”

Rev. Butts is survived by his wife, Patricia, three children and six grandchildren, according to the Associated Press.

During the coronavirus pandemic, even as his church was closed, Rev. Butts turned Abyssinian into a vaccine center, inviting the media to photograph him rolling up his sleeve to a receive a shot — an image, he hoped, that would get skeptical African Americans to follow his lead.

“To those who may be a bit skeptical about receiving the vaccine,” he said, “good religion goes best with some common sense.”