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

Butts, who is said to be planning a run for mayor, called Giuliani a "racist" earlier this year. Following Butts's endorsement of Pataki, Giuliani declared that the governor should have declined the endorsement. "Reverend Butts engages in using the term 'racist' so loosely that it portrays something substantially wrong in him," Giuliani declared. "If I were in Governor Pataki's position, I would refuse to take his endorsement."

Butts told the Voice he had been solidifying his relationship with Pataki for the past four years, and that the disgruntled activsits should have anticipated that he would side with Pataki in the gubernatorial race. "One might have expected that I would do this," he says.

Asked if such unusual public criticism of him by Rice, Barron, Haughton, and Wilcox was meant to derail him politically, Butts replied, "I don't believe--I could be wrong--that people like Preston Wilcox and Florence Rice and Charles Barron are trying to literally destroy me and hurt me intentionally with these remarks. I look at these remarks as part of the rhetoric of the political struggle for the liberation of our people at a time when some disagree with an action that I have taken."

Jim Haughton's Fightback has been feuding with Calvin Butts over black construction workers whom Haughton claims have been denied jobs on projects overseen by Abyssinian Development Corp.

"The building programs that they have been involved in [are] racist," charged Haughton, adding that plum projects were doled out to white construction firms. "There are black workers, as well as contractors, on the block where the church is located, who could not get involved with the Abyssinian Development Corp. building programs."

Butts acknowledges that Haughton had been complaining. "He's made that point to me, and I have spoken with the leadership of the Development Corporation about employment opportunities," he says. "Now, in working on these job sites, we have hired people of African descent. When that happens, many people are happy, but then we get some who come along and say, 'Well, you haven't hired the people of African descent we want you to hire.' "

Butts's reference apparently was to alleged strong-arming by groups that march on mostly white construction sites protesting the lack of black laborers and demanding 25 percent minority participation.

"At one site, a man was chased off his tractor and into his car, and his car was beaten upon and the door kicked in," Butts says. He insists that the alleged assailants were not connected to Fightback. "This was not Jim Haughton!"

"We may not have done all that Mr. Haughton wants us to do, and I want to do all that he wants us to do," Butts added. "I can't say right now, 'Here, let's turn this whole project fully over to African Americans,' because there are a number of issues like bonding, being able to keep the job going."

Butts envisions a new Harlem rising out of the old community, which was scarred by abandoned buildings, massive unemployment, and drug dealers plying their trade. For years he's heard complaints from parishioners about the lack of affordable housing and black-owned businesses.

"Many pieces of land in Harlem have been undeveloped for years until recently. And one can count at least 400 jobs that have been created as a result of new construction," he boasts. "And it is not true that we are turning the community over to other people. If you look at the Pathmark project, Abyssinian and the East Harlem Triangle own the land and the building, and we are simply leasing to Pathmark to provide the supermarket service.

"I think we're beginning to claim the community. You can't say 'reclaim' because we have not really owned Harlem. We are beginning to claim it."

Not since Reverend Al Sharpton's controversial endorsement of Senator Alfonse D'Amato in 1986 have some blacks been so traumatized by what they view as a political backstabbing.

Sharpton sneers at any suggestion that there is a similarity between Butts's arrangement with Pataki and the one he worked out with D'Amato.

He recalls Pataki speaking at Butts's church four years ago when Pataki, challenging incumbent Governor Mario Cuomo, had campaigned to restore the death penalty.

"I preached the sermon that morning," says Sharpton, who, like Butts, made no endorsement in that race. "My economic challenge to him was that if he really wanted to talk black economics, he ought to get us a black commercial bank so that we could lend brothers and sisters money to go into business and for mortgages. I did not ask him to give us a supermarket that Pathmark is going to end up owning. Pathmark owning a supermarket in East Harlem is not economic development."

Research: W. Michelle Beckles

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