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CALVIN BUTTS Printer Friendly Page

Calvin Butts: Extended Profile
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  • President of SUNY College at Old Westbury
  • Baptist minister
  • Emerged as a leading radical spokesman for New York's black community in the 1980s
  • Views America as a nation rife with racism

Born in July 1949, Calvin Butts is one of the most prominent figures in New York’s black clergy. He is the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a historic house of worship in Harlem, New York. He is also the President of the State University of New York’s College at Old Westbury on Long Island. Butts earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from Morehouse College; a Master of Divinity Degree in Church History from Union Theological Seminary; and a Doctor of Ministry in Church and Public Policy from Drew University. He has taught Black Church History at Fordham University and was an adjunct professor in City College of New York’s African Studies Department.

Butts is a great admirer of militant black leaders like Malcolm X, to whom he has referred as an “inspiring figure” and "our black shining prince."  

Since emerging as a leading spokesman for New York’s black community in the 1980s, Butts has frequently ascribed racist motivations to his political adversaries. In 1983, when then-Mayor Ed Koch raised doubts about an alleged instance of police harassment of blacks, Butts charged, on no specific evidence, that the mayor was “worse than a racist.”

In 1990, during a visit to New York by Nelson Mandela, the city itself was the object of Butts’ scorn, as he pronounced it “one of the most racially divided cities in the world.”

In 1992 Butts, angry over the fact that blacks patronized Korean businesses that allegedly disrespected black customers, called for “massive civil disobedience” that would "disrupt business as usual."

Three years later, Butts directed his ire at Justice Clarence Thomas. As Butts saw it, Thomas, by favoring conservative politics, had betrayed the goals of the black community. Said Butts before a television audience: “Yes, Clarence Thomas, you poor confused fellow, you are the enemy, and we are determined to turn you around, and if we don’t, you are leading our country to a racial confrontation that we will all be the poorer for.”

In 1998, Butts smeared New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a “racist” and accused him of moving New York “toward [being] a fascist state.”

In 2000, two days after the acquittal of some New York police officers who had gunned down an unarmed Guinean illegal immigrant named Amadou Diallo (who they thought to be armed), Butts told his church congregants that a “substantial figure” in the New York business community had tried to persuade him “to understand that it was a fair trial” and that “most crime is black-on-black crime, and the police have done a lot of good.” “At that point,” said Butts, “I told him: ‘Go to hell, white man!’” Butts also called for a consumer boycott of white businesses.

Throughout the year 2000, Butts devoted his energies to convincing the black community that it was under siege by racist authorities. “The rope around our necks is gone, but the lynching continues,” he said.

Appearing at a 2005 seminar called “Confronting Islamophobia,” sponsored by the United Nations Department of Public Information, Butts effectively put an end to any legitimate discussion of militant Islam by asserting that the “racist U.S.” views all Muslims as enemies. As Butts saw it, “whether Muslims like it or not, Muslims are labeled people of color in the racist U.S. … they won’t label you by calling you a nigger but they’ll call you a terrorist.” Not wholly silent on the subject of religious radicalism, Butts said “I am very aware of Christian extremism.”

While delivering an April 2005 eulogy for Johnnie Cochran (best known as the defense lawyer in O.J. Simpson’s 1995 double-murder trial), who was one of Butts’ parishioners at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Butts insisted that the deceased attorney “deserves a standing ovation from everybody in this house.”

On December 15, 2006, in the wake of a November police shooting that had killed a black suspect in New York City, Butts demanded that the city deal harshly with members of the Police Department who he described as “ignorant savages who continue to prey upon our [black] people as if we have no respect by virtue of our humanity or our citizenship.”  “There are police officers who must be dealt with,” added Butts. “They are culturally ignorant and racially insensitive.”

While portraying the United States as a bastion of white racism, Butts has made clear his affinity for Communist Cuba and its dictator Fidel Castro, who, during a 1995 visit to New York, was spurned by politicians on both sides of the political aisle. To remedy what he perceived as the injustice of the snub, Butts hosted Castro at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. There—in front of a crowd of 1,300—including several local Democratic office-holders such as Charles Rangel, José Serrano, and Nydia Velazquez—Butts lavished praise on the honored guest. “It is in our tradition to welcome all who are visionaries, revolutionaries and who seek the liberation of all people,” he declared.

Butts’ sympathy for dictators did not extend to Saddam Hussein. All the same, in declaring against the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq (which he insisted was “a question of oil and control of oil”), Butts argued that the United States under George W. Bush  was not appreciably better than Iraq had been under Saddam Hussein. In a January 2004 interview, he complained that while the U.S. was engaged in a war overseas, "we will let our own people die at home because they can’t get decent health care; our own children go uneducated; we’ll keep pushing the tuition for public education higher and higher and higher; we won’t build new schools.”

Butts’ solution to the war on terror, which he outlined during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, is for Americans to understand that there is “hate at the root of what took place [on 9-11]” and “to fight that hate with love.”

Butts views former President Bill Clinton far more favorably than he does George W. Bush. In April 2001 Clinton spoke, on Butts’ invitation, to the students and faculty at SUNY’s Old Westbury campus. While introducing Clinton, Butts said: “Through both his efforts during his presidency and the work of his current foundation, President Clinton has shown an ongoing commitment to leadership development and citizen service, and to bridging those gaps that divide people from different backgrounds.”

On January 20, 2008, Butts endorsed Hillary Clinton for U.S. President. "A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote to elect someone who has proven through time, to me and to this community and this country, that she has the experience to make things happen," he said.



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