By Marc H. Morial
“Reverend Butts worked more effectively than any other leader at the intersection of power, politics, and faith in New York. He understood the role of faith in our lives, especially in the Black community. But he also understood power and how to wield it and how to demand power from those who often sought to hoard it. And so he was a pragmatist, he was a realist, but he was also a dreamer.” — Ford Foundation President Darren Walker
Last year, during a town hall on vaccines hosted by the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, of which the National Urban League is a co-founding partner, the Rev. Calvin Butts stated succinctly and powerfully the role of the church in Black communities, and the power of the church to shape those communities.
“The church is still the place of social cohesion for our community,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody says, it is true, and the Black pastor is still the most trusted of all. We have every reason to believe that’s true not only in terms of medicine but also in terms of the political life that sets the atmosphere. We just had one Black pastor elected to the Senate. We had one Black pastor, who is still the major Black political leader of all time, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. We have Henry McNeal Turner, who was an AME Bishop down in Georgia, who was very powerful and Bill Gray, out of Philadelphia. So, we have, in our possession, the keys to unlock the doors of information to our community.”
Rev. Butts, who passed away last month at the age of 73, used these keys more broadly and effectively than perhaps any other pastor in recent history to transform his community and empower his congregation.
As the National Urban League prepares to relocate to Harlem, the community where our movement took root, we will be joining a community that has been profoundly and radically reshaped by Rev. Butts’ passion, his devotion, and his political and business savvy.
Rev. Butts served Abyssinian Baptist Church for 50 years, starting as a 22-year-old youth minister in 1972, fresh out of Morehouse College. The church, then led by Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, already had been built into one of the city’s most influential institutions by Proctor’s immediate predecessor, the dynamic 11-term congressman Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Rev. Butts became Abyssinian’s pastor in 1989. That same year, he founded Abyssinian Development Corporation with a single employee and a $50,000 grant, with a mission to rebuild Harlem “brick by brick and block by block.”
The nonprofit has since invested $1 billion in the community, including the first high school constructed in Harlem in half a century, some of the neighborhood’s first national retail chain stores, one of its few full-service supermarkets, a department store, and a shopping center. It also has developed more than 1,500 rental units in the Harlem area, most reserved for low-income residents.
The National Urban League is honoring Rev. Butts’ legacy with our own $242 million investment in Harlem, the 414,000-square-foot Urban League Empowerment Center, which includes 170 units of affordable housing with 70 supportive homes reserved for youth aging out of foster care.
As Rev. Butts explained to The New York Times in 2008, the church’s development work grew out of its tradition of social justice advocacy. The church was founded in 1808 by a group of Ethiopian merchant seamen and other Black worshippers who walked out of the First Baptist Church in Lower Manhattan after they were directed to sit in a segregated area. Abyssinia is a historic name for Ethiopia.
True to Abyssinian’s origin, Rev. Butts fought fiercely and fearlessly for civil rights and social justice. Outraged by the violence and misogyny he heard in rap music, he once commandeered a steam roller to crush a pole of cassette tapes and compact discs in front of his church. When rap fans blocked his path, he and his followers hopped a bus to midtown Manhattan and dumped the pole in front of Sony headquarters. “This is your garbage,” he shouted into a megaphone. “Take it back!”
He was a fierce critic of what he called “a culture of white supremacy” within the New York Police Department, calling rogue officers “ignorant savages who continue to prey upon our people as if we have no respect by virtue of our humanity or our citizenship.”
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who served as the youth pastor and then assistant pastor at Abyssinian in the 1990s, said, “Calvin Butts taught me how to take my ministry to the streets. The work of the Lord doesn’t stop at the church door. That’s where it starts. His pulpit was the public square.”
Marc Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.