- President of SUNY College at Old Westbury
- Pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York
- Emerged as a leading radical spokesman for New York’s black community in the 1980s
- Views America as a nation awash in racism
Calvin Otis Butts III was born in New York City on July 19, 1949. After graduating from high school in 1967, he earned a BA in Philosophy from Morehouse College, a Master of Divinity degree (in Church History) from Union Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry degree (in Church and Public Policy) from Drew University. Since 1989 he has served as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a historic house of worship in Harlem. And since 1999, he has been president of the State University of New York’s College at Old Westbury.
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, for instance, when then-mayor Ed Koch voiced 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 April 1989, a 28-year-old white woman, dubbed the “Central Park jogger,” was gang-raped and nearly beaten to death in New York’s Central Park by a group of black teenagers. Despite the defendants’ graphic and detailed confessions, which were captured on videotape and delivered in the presence of their parents or guardians, Butts said: “There’s no evidence to link them to the rape.”
In 1992, Butts, angry over the fact that black New Yorkers were patronizing Korean-owned businesses that allegedly disrespected black customers, called for blacks to “disrupt business-as-usual” by means of “massive civil disobedience.”
In 1995 Butts directed his ire at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose conservative politics were viewed by Butts as a betrayal of the black community. Butts described Thomas as a “poor confused fellow” and “the enemy” of black people.
In October 1995 Butts honored Cuban dictator Fidel Castro with a huge, standing-room-only ceremony at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. “It is in our tradition to welcome all who are visionaries, revolutionaries and who seek the liberation of all people,” the pastor declared. In 2000, Butts and his church again held a rousing tribute to Castro, who was greeted with a ten-minute standing ovation and thunderous chants of: “Fidel! Fidel! Viva Fidel!” Butts, for his part, said: “God Bless you, Fidel.”
In 1998, Butts smeared New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, known for his tough-on-crime policies, as a “racist” and accused him of moving New York “toward [being] a fascist state.”1
In February 2000, two days after the acquittal of four New York police officers who had gunned down an unarmed Guinean illegal immigrant named Amadou Diallo (who they thought was 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!’” On another occasion, Butts suggested that the Diallo verdict represented the same sort of injustice that had previously caused peaceful leaders in apartheid South Africa to take up arms. “The rope around our necks is gone,” Butts lamented, “but the lynching continues.”
During a late 2001 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Butts explained that Americans needed to understand that there was “hate at the root of what took place” on 9/11, and that they should seek “to fight that hate with love.”
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. Asked during a January 2004 interview whether he agreed that Saddam was “a ruthless dictator who murdered his own people,” Butts replied that while he did not approve of Saddam, “we [Americans] 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.” Several months earlier (in a July 2003 address to the Community Development Society at Cornell University), Butts in a similar spirit had said: “There are billions and billions of dollars that should be available for community development, but every day there are more Americans dying [in Iraq] and they still haven’t caught Saddam.”
Appearing at a “Confronting Islamophobia” seminar sponsored by the United Nations Department of Public Information in December 2004, Butts asserted that the “racist U.S.” viewed all Muslims as enemies. “[W]hether Muslims like it or not,” he said, “Muslims are labeled people of color in the racist U.S.… they won’t label you by calling you a ni**er but they’ll call you a terrorist.” By contrast, Butts took pains to emphasize: “I am very aware of Christian extremism.” Specifically, he noted that Christian slaveowners had used their own religion to justify the subjugation of blacks. He also took a swipe at Israel, saying that “occupying land in the name of God” was “religious terrorism.”
In April 2005, Butts delivered a eulogy for the deceased Johnnie Cochran, best known as the defense lawyer who in 1995 had helped acquit O.J. Simpson of double murder charges by injecting the element of race into Simpson’s defense. Butts insisted that Cochran, who had been one of his parishioners at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, “deserves a standing ovation from everybody in this house.”
In December 2006 Butts demanded that New York City leaders deal harshly with “racially insensitive” police officers, describing the latter 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.” Butts also joined Al Sharpton in leading a protest march against police brutality.
In 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.
In April 2015, Butts called for the elimination of so-called “broken-windows” and “stop-and-frisk” policing practices, alleging that such tactics were racist. He also demanded that the NYPD reopen its criminal investigation into a July 2014 incident where an African American New Yorker named Eric Garner had died after resisting several police officers’ efforts to arrest him. Moreover, Butts exhorted Mayor Bill de Blasio to fight a proposed state law that would make it a felony for any civilian to resist arrest.
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1 By the time Giuliani’s mayoralty ended in January 2002, however, Butts had changed his mind. Citing Giuliani’s unprecedented success in reducing New York City’s crime rates, Butts now compared the mayor to the biblical King Josiah who had “brought order, peace, the law back to the land.” “I really think that without Giuliani, we would have been overrun,” Butts said.