Rev. Calvin O. Butts III Pastor of NYC’s Abyssinian Baptist And Revered Harlem Leader, Dies at 73

The minister was known for his leadership of one of New York’s largest Black congregations and for his years as an educator and activist.

Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, community leader, pastor of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, and former president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, died Friday (Oct. 28), according to a statement released by the church on its website and social media pages. He was 73. A cause of death was not immediately available.

It is with profound sadness, we announce the passing of our beloved pastor, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, lll, who peacefully transitioned in the early morning of October 28, 2022,” the Harlem-based church announced in a Twitter post. “The Butts Family & entire Abyssinian Baptist Church membership solicit your prayers.”

Born in Bridgeport, Conn. in 1949, Butts moved with his family to Queens, N.Y., and later earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Morehouse College in Atlanta and a Master of Divinity degree from New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1975 and later a Doctorate of Ministry in church and public policy from Drew University. During his time in seminary, Butts joined Abyssinian and eventually became a youth minister and in 1989 assistant pastor.

That year, he started the non-profit Abyssinian Development Corporation which grew to a multimillion dollar economic advocacy organization for the Harlem community with total revenue of more than $37 million, according to ProPublica.

Butts also taught urban affairs and was an adjunct professor in the African Studies Department at City College, New York, and also taught Black Church history at Fordham University in the Bronx.

In the 1990s, Butts was among those most vocally critical of police tactics in Black communities, blasting then-mayor Rudy Giuliani over the death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of New York City police officers in 1999, when those policemen were acquitted the next year.

“While the mayor is not responsible for pulling the trigger, I think that he has created an atmosphere of division and mistrust in the city, and we should work to defeat his bid for the Senate,” he told The New York Post in 2000. “There are many who are calling for calm, but I am not one. I think that people ought to be agitated, they ought to be active.”

Butts’ activism wasn’t limited to the New York political structure. Earlier, in 1993, he led a protest against violent and misogynistic lyrics in hip hop music at a time when gangsta rap was proliferating. He was so adamant against the lyrical content of many rap songs that at a protest in front of Abyssinian, he prepared to drive a steamroller over a collection of CDs and tapes by artists he felt were offensive. Eventually, he put them in front of the offices of Sony Records in Manhattan.

'You don't have to degrade our women. You don't have to dehumanize our race. You don't have to use violent and vulgar language,' Butts said at the protest, according to UPI. He took criticism over his position, with many in the hip hop community accusing the pastor of encouraging censorship.

In a 1993 appearance on the now-defunct WNYC-TV show “Video Music Box” Butts and rapper Ice T debated over rap lyrics. “I talk in the dialog of the streets. You would like, in a perfect world, for things to be different, but they simply aren’t,” Ice told Butts.

The Harlem community learned of Butts passing and responded with sorrow and memories of his activism and reverence for Black people. Rev. Al Sharpton tweeted that although they sometimes disagreed, they were still of one accord.

Others reacted similarly, calling Butts a “pillar” of the community and an “icon” in his leadership.

Butts is survived by his wife, Patricia, three children, and six grandchildren. Funeral services have not yet been announced.

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