The Sins of Reverend Calvin Butts


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.”

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