The Sins of Reverend Calvin Butts

A black leader who called the mayor 'racist,' then endorsed the governor, ignites a furor over power and respect in harlem

A howling wind kicked up dust and litter in the plaza of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem, where a covey of community activists had gathered last Thursday to harangue Reverend Calvin Butts. In the opinion of Florence Rice, the feisty septuagenarian and mother of the Harlem consumer movement, the noonday squall was perhaps an omen that the tempestuous Powell, who represented the predominantly black enclave in Congress from 1944 to 1970, "at this moment is spinning in his grave" over what Butts has done.

What, wondered Rice, possessed the beloved leader of Harlem's historic, 4000-member Abyssinian Baptist Church, which Powell headed before his death, to endorse Republican governor George Pataki for reelection?

As Rice and her compatriots--Charles Barron, Preston Wilcox, Jim Haughton, Charles Kenyatta, Ron Daniels, and Mary Alice France--stood in the shadow of the building named after Powell, their condemnation of Reverend Butts seemed to have the full panoply of an exorcism. Barron, a veteran Brooklyn-based black nationalist, interrogated the heretic in absentia:

"How can you endorse a man who brought the death penalty to New York State, where black and Latino people are disproportinately represented on death row?

"How can you, Reverend Butts, for a few pieces of silver, endorse a man who has pitted WEP [New York's Work Experience Program] workers against union workers, replacing them, and making [them] work for slave wages?

"How can you, Reverend Butts, for a few pieces of silver, endorse a man who has built more prisons than schools. A man who sat back silently, and watched while Mayor Giuliani turned Harlem into a police state during the Million Youth March, and initiate a police riot?

"How can you endorse such a man that devastated every program that black people needed for their well-being in this state?

"For that," added Barron, "we condemn your endorsement and we give you an opening. Repent! Ask God to forgive you. Ask the black community to forgive you and go in peace, my brother--and sin no more."

But Harlem's so-called Judas was not listening.

Reverend Butts, who seems to feel that the economic rebirth of the community depends on hand-me-downs from George Pataki, is an unrepentant sinner. In endorsing Pataki two weeks ago at his church, Butts credited the governor with helping to launch three major development projects on 125th Street: a Pathmark supermarket, which received $2 million in state loans; Harlem Center, a retail and entertainment complex, which received $5 million in state loans; and Harlem USA, a shopping center, which received $6.6 million in state loans.

Ground has also been broken on the East River Plaza, an enormous shopping complex being built at 116th Street on a six-acre riverside lot that has not been occupied since a factory was abandoned there 25 years ago. That project is getting $3 million in state loans. Pataki appointed Butts to the Empire State Development Corp., which authorized the low-cost loans from the state as part of financing for the projects.

The Abyssinian Development Corp., which is an arm of the church, is also a codeveloper of two of the projects: Pathmark and Harlem Center.

"Butts's political opportunism must be challenged by the members of his church and the Harlem community who have provided the base for his emergence as a prominent spokesperson for Harlem," said Jim Haughton, the founder of Fightback, a group which has waged a battle for full representation of black and Latino workers in the construction industry.

"His support for Pataki must be exposed as a sellout, a flagrant rejection of the struggle of Harlem for social, economic, and political betterment," Haugton said. "He must be urged to stop betraying Harlem."

Preston Wilcox, a lifelong Harlem resident, who is a journalist and a former confidant of Malcolm X, compared Butts to Willie Lynch, an 18th-century slavemaster who advised plantation owners about how to control their slaves.

"He has put himself in the position of a slave catcher to help Pataki take over Harlem," Wilcox charged. "My concern is that Reverend Butts has allowed himself to become like Willie Lynch."

"Reverend Butts seems to be playing the role of slave controller," echoed Florence Rice. "I am deeply saddened, and I am sure that Adam Powell [is] looking on this today [and] realizes that the wrong person got out there in leadership. . . . We're being used. We've got to wake up!"

Another Harlem activist, who was not part of the group, contended that the protesters are making Butts appear more important than he is. Butts, he argues, is not a black leader but the pastor of a church with a historic name who has become a darling of the media.

"Nobody can say that Calvin Butts has made any impact on any election, city or state," the activist asserted. "The white media always want to counter the guys like Al Sharpton with a polished negro of their liking. They've always had a Roy Wilkins [former executive director of the NAACP] because they liked him better than Dr. Martin Luther King, and they liked King better than Malcolm X, or preferred Doug Wilder [Virginia's first black governor] to Jesse Jackson."

Next Page »