The death of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem is still resonating through the religious world.
Rev. Butts’ death was announced on October 28, 2022. He was 73 and had been battling cancer, according to close associates.
“Rev. Butts was a major pillar in the Harlem community and is irreplaceable. He was a dominant faith and academic leader for decades. We knew each other for more than 40 years, and while we did not always agree we always came back together,” Rev. Al Sharpton, founder, and president of the National Action Network.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called Rev. Butts “a tremendous leader who served our state, our city and our nation with grace, dignity and passion.”
“[He] was a force for moral clarity, a voice for his Harlem community, a counselor to so many of us in public service and I was proud to call him a friend,” she continued.
During his remarkable tenure as the church’s leader, Rev. Butts was a tireless advocate for affordable housing through the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a non-profit organization he established in 1989.
Under his guidance the corporation raised $2.8 million to purchase and renovate property to be used as a homeless shelter. Also, he oversaw the building of a large apartment complex for senior citizens and apartments for moderate income households. Much of this was done with the Partnership of New York City program.
Rev. Butts was born on July 19, 1949, in Bridgeport, Conn., and spent most of his lifetime in New York, beginning in early childhood. He graduated from Flushing High School in 1967, where he was a promising athlete and scholar as a member of the track team and president of his senior class.
In 2005, he was interviewed by “HistoryMakers,” and said that in 1972 he received his B.A. degree from Morehouse College. While a student there, he pledged to the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and was active in civil rights.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Butts and several other Morehouse students took to the streets in anger. After graduation, Butts returned to New York where he earned his Master of Divinity degree in church history in 1975 from Union Theological Seminary and later his Doctor of Ministry in church and public policy from Drew University. He was still in graduate school when he was hired to work at Abyssinian Baptist Church, starting as an office assistant and worked his way up to assistant pastor, eventually being named head pastor in 1989.
Following in the footprints of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Rev. Samuel Proctor, Butts was a true community servant.
Some of his stands were not welcomed by many in his community.
He endorsed the Republican Party’s George Pataki in his re-election campaign in 1998. Current Councilman Charles Barron said Pataki failed to stop Mayor Rudy Giuliani from turning Harlem “into a police state.”
Rev. Butts incurred the wrath of many Harlemites again when he endorsed Michael Bloomberg over Bill Thompson in 2008.
Rev. Butts forged ahead with a sundry of community developments and put his leadership stamp on such institutions as the State University of New York at Old Westbury, where he served as president from 1999 to 2020. Among his achievements at the college was its investment of approximately $150 million in capital projects, technological advances, residence halls, and a major academic building.
He served as an adjunct professor in the African Studies Department at City College, New York, and Black Church History at Fordham University. He was sought after for appearances on the lecture circuit where his expertise on education and ethical issues earned him a national reputation.