* Former 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.
Following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Butts joined a group of rioting students from Morehouse College in firebombing a local business in Atlanta.
After emerging as a leading spokesman for New York’s black community in the 1980s, Butts 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 1983 as well, Butts played a key role in persuading the Democratic Congressman John Conyers Jr. to convene hearings on police brutality in New York City, hearings that helped push the Koch administration to appoint Benjamin Ward later that year as the city’s first black police commissioner.
In January 1987, attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason dispatched Butts to represent them at a meeting where New York Governor Mario Cuomo was slated to sit with black leaders to discuss the possibility of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the recent death of an African American named Michael Griffith in a racially charged incident in Howard Beach, New York. Regarding Griffith’s death, Butts said he was “outraged at this overt display of the most vile and ugly kind of racism.”
Later in 1987, Maddox and Mason infamously joined with Al Sharpton in perpetrating a massive hoax in which they falsely claimed that a black teenager named Tawana Brawley had been raped and brutalized by a gang of whites. Praising the three Brawley advisors, Butts suggested that “what they are doing now is in the best interests of Tawana Brawley and in the best interests of black people. In order to do this, like in Howard Beach, they have had to take some fairly drastic action.”
In 1989 Butts became pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a historic house of worship in Harlem, a position he has held ever since.
In April 1989, a 28-year-old white woman named Trisha Meili was gang-raped and nearly beaten to death while jogging in New York’s Central Park by a large group of black and Hispanic 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.” When five of the attackers stood trial the following year, Butts complained that “the first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped, is round up a bunch of black youths.” Notably, Butts never once suggested the possibility that Miss Meili’s attackers themselves, by targeting a white woman, might have been guilty of racism. In Butts’ calculus, blacks were not even capable of racism — on the theory that they had no “power to inflict oppression.”
Butts frequently suggested that law-enforcement officials indiscriminately rounded up and incarcerated black men — even those who had done nothing wrong. Drawing a parallel between modern-day prisons and the plantations of the Old South, he likened African American inmates to the slaves of yesteryear: “We have to tell them [whites] to let our people go.”
In February 1990, Butts hosted a special ceremony at the Abyssinian Baptist Church commemorating the 25th anniversary of the assassination of “Our Black Shining Prince,” Malcolm X. Fifteen years later, he hosted a similar event in recognition of the 40th anniversary.
On at least three occasions during the 1990s — October 1991, February 1992, and July 1998 – Butts’ Abyssinian Baptist Church hosted the infamous Jew-hater Leonard Jeffries as a guest speaker. In his 1992 speech at Abyssinian, Jeffries lamented what he described as the ubiquity of systemic racism and white-on-black crime in America, claiming that “black people are under siege.” In 1992 as well, Butts defended Jeffries and denounced the City University of New York for having recently removed the professor from his position as its Black Studies Department chair. “We don’t need an ivory tower academician,” said Butts. “We need a scholar-activist like Dr. Jeffries.”
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.”
A few days before the 1993 New York City mayoral election, Butts urged the members of his Harlem congregation to actively support the incumbent black mayor, David Dinkins. Even though New York’s homicide and violent-crime rates had spiraled out of control under Dinkins’ watch, Butts, citing three cities whose black mayors had recently been voted out of office in favor of white challengers, said: “We lost Los Angeles. We lost Philadelphia. We lost Chicago . . . We’re not going to lose New York.”
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 Cuba’s Communist 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. Five years later, 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.”
In 1999, Butts became president of the State University of New York’s College at Old Westbury, a post he would hold for the next two decades.
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.”
In April 2001, former U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke, at Butts’ invitation, to the students and faculty at SUNY’s Old Westbury campus. While introducing Clinton, Butts praised his “ongoing commitment to leadership development and citizen service, and to bridging those gaps that divide people from different backgrounds.”
Butts was a great admirer of a young Baptist minister named Raphael Warnock, whom he described in 2001 as “one of the brightest and most intelligent and academically prepared young clergymen in the country.” “He’s a forceful leader,” Butts further said about Warnock, “very serious about the issues that impact especially the African-American community. He’s one of the more thoughtful preachers of his generation.” (Two decades later, in 2021, Warnock was elected as a U.S. Senator in the state of Georgia.)
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 more respectable 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 America 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 the spring of 2005, Butts invited Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, to deliver the commencement speech at SUNY-Old Westbury.
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 a December 2014 appearance on CNN, Butts, claiming that the modern-day U.S. prison system treated black people like the antebellum South treated slaves, said: “Those of us who are not white know statistically that we are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system here in this nation. Most of the drugs are not purchased by black people. Most of the drugs in this country are not sold by black people, but yet black people are the ones mostly incarcerated because of the sale of drugs. Crime rates, if you look at the crime rates in most cities, most of the crime is not perpetrated by people of African descent, though it would seem that that is the case. But yet most of the people incarcerated for crime are people of African descent…. [T]he prison system is now akin to what slavery was many, many years ago.”
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 New York Police Department 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 New York mayor Bill de Blasio to reject a proposed state law that would make it a felony for any civilian to resist arrest.
When Donald Trump was elected U.S. President in November 2016, Butts said: “Just like the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the election of Donald Trump will change America as we know it.” Reporting that he had just met with a group of young black children at the Thurgood Marshall Lower School in Harlem — at the request of its principal — Butts said that the youngsters “are traumatized. They’re asking questions like, ‘Is Donald Trump an evil man? Will my parents be taken away from me? Why is everybody seeming so scared?’ Our children are frightened.”
In late January 2020, Butts retired from his position as president of SUNY Old Westbury.
Butts died at his home in Harlem on October 28, 2022. His son, Calvin O. Butts IV, said that the cause of his father’s death was pancreatic cancer.
Further Reading: “Calvin O. Butts” (AARegistry.org,); African American Religious Leaders (by Nathan Aaseng, 2003, pp. 31-33).