On a damp, dreary night when the fog rolling in off the Hudson River gave the village of Ossining, New York, the gauzy, eerie look of an old vampire movie, the Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts parked his Cadillac near the railroad tracks on the edge of town and got out carrying a well-worn, leather-covered bible. He took a deep breath, turned up the collar of his trench coat, and walked through the blue-black darkness toward the octagonal guard towers that loom over the front gates to Sing Sing.
Butts, who is pastor of the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, had come to this notorious maximum-security prison where more than 600 people have been electrocuted (including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) to minister to a group of twenty prisoners. The men, who ranged in age from 20 to their mid-forties, had been convicted of crimes varying in severity from robbery to murder. What made these men unusual was that they were all working to turn their lives around: finishing college and even becoming seminary students while in prison.
Once inside Sing Sing’s decrepit check-in room, with its metal detector, stark fluorescent light, and thick iron bars, Butts, in a snappy brown suit, sea-blue shirt, and white pocket square, waited while his identification was verified. Standing amid the bulky, pasty-faced guards and a handful of people emptying their pockets as part of the security ritual to get into the 173-year-old prison, Butts looked around and began to shake his head gently from side to side. “This,” he said as his still-boyish face gave way to a broad smile, “is the work I was meant to do. This means something.”
Barely an hour before, as we began the trip to Sing Sing, driving along Lenox Avenue, across the Harlem River, past Yankee Stadium, and on up into Westchester, the pastor of the great Gothic fortress on 138th Street had been talking passionately about the other work he feels increasingly called to do: run for public office. In fact, his soul-searching about seeking a bigger pulpit is so well known, even the prisoners he visited that night asked him what’s up with politics, when is he going to become a candidate?
“It may be now that there’s some transition – not away from the church because I’ll always want to preach – but it may be that the Lord has prepared me for something else,” he said, filling the car with his sonorous voice. “I’ve wanted to be mayor of New York since the third grade. And I’d like to be a U.S. senator at some point. That’s very clear to me. But what you wanna be and what you need to be are two different things.”
The imperative to do something now, however, extends beyond strictly personal considerations. Butts knows there is a serious black-leadership vacuum in the city. In the post-Dinkins era, no one has yet stepped up (which is the only reason it’s still referred to as the post-Dinkins era). State comptroller Carl McCall, already 62, has shown no real interest in developing a higher profile. State Senator David Paterson seems to covet higher office but not quite enough to really go after it. C. Virginia Fields, the newly elected Manhattan borough president, so far seems by temperament more legislator than leader.
And despite the Reverend Al Sharpton’s showing against Ruth Messinger last year, serious questions remain about his potential to broaden his appeal. So when Butts, 48, looks at the political horizon – say the Rudy-free mayor’s race in 2001 – he surely sees as clear a field for a serious black contender as there may ever be. Whether the goal is City Hall or Charles Rangel’s congressional seat, this may be the optimal time for Butts to finally find out what kind of support he really has.
“He ought to be in government, because he’s a guy who likes to deliver and he could do it on a grander scale,” says veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Is it time for unusual kinds of political leaders like Calvin Butts who don’t come up through the normative channels? The answer is probably yes, because there’s a change going on in how we determine what makes a leader and what we expect from them. He’s very smart, and he shares the values of a lot of middle-class people.”
It’s easy to forget that Calvin Butts is the minister who once said then-mayor Koch was “worse than a racist”; who blasted David Dinkins and Charlie Rangel as “timid politicians” who “settle for crumbs”; and who snapped during a visit by Nelson Mandela in 1990 that New York was “one of the most racially divided cities in the world.”
Butts has come in from the cold. Where once he happily stood outside the system, tossing rhetorical cluster bombs, he now operates with significant grace and skill on the inside. He was a member of Governor Pataki’s transition team (Republican governor Pataki) and serves on the board of the Empire State Development Corporation. He lunches with Chase Manhattan chairman Walter Shipley. He’s partners with megadeveloper Bruce Ratner on a commercial project on 125th Street. He’s courted with parties and fund-raisers by wealthy socialites. He’s got a Sunday-morning radio show on KISS-FM. He’s on the board of the United Way and the Central Park Conservancy. He was recently chosen to head New York’s influential (and white-dominated) Council of Churches. And he counts among his close friends and advisers American Express president and COO Ken Chenault, Travelers Group vice-chairman Tom Jones, United Way president Ralph Dickerson, and Time Warner president Richard Parsons.
Not only is Butts the pastor of Abyssinian, the 190-year-old Harlem church that is a center of spiritual and intellectual activity for blacks from all over the tri-state area, but he is a reformer, an administrator, an organizer, and a developer. He has, through the Abyssinian Development Corporation, built millions of dollars worth of housing for homeless people, senior citizens, and moderate- and middle-income families. He is in the process of renovating and resuscitating the Renaissance Ballroom, once a locus of Harlem nightlife. And by the sheer force of his will, he has brought the first major commercial development to 125th Street in more than 30 years, a 53,000-square-foot Pathmark supermarket.
Now the once-militant minister, who’s had a longstanding friendship with C.Vernon Mason and who, along with several other Morehouse College students, tore up the streets and firebombed a store in Atlanta on the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, believes he has built enough bridges, mended enough fences, and amassed enough of a record to demonstrate he is qualified even to run New York City.
“Mayor is what’s happening,” he said when I asked him how serious he really is about City Hall. “I’m a New Yorker. I want to go to the Yankee games as mayor. I want to go to the Knicks games as mayor. I want to be able to greet world personalities when they come to the city. I would like to see Harlem’s streets clean. I’d like to see police who are tough but civil. I’d like to use the opportunity to empower African-Americans so that they are respected, so that they have a piece of the pie, so that somebody finally delivers for them while not being unfair to others,” he said.
“Mayor?” he asked rhetorically in a high-pitched voice. “Mayor of the city of New York? Shucks. To be able to cut through traffic like a hot knife through butter. Mayor? Sure. Mayor is every New Yorker’s dream,” he said.
“To be able to help people, that’s primarily what you do as mayor. To be able to make this city shine. To provide real leadership, leadership that brings people together. Mayor Giuliani is mean-spirited, vindictive, and small-minded. He’s tough in ways you don’t even have to be. But people see him as at least getting something done, something that began to address some of the city’s problems. But what I’m suggesting,” Butts said as he fumbled to fish a bill out of his pocket to pay a toll on the thruway, “is that you’re still only settling for mediocre leadership.”
For almost a decade, Butts has toyed with the notion of entering politics. He’s put out feelers, he’s floated trial balloons, and he’s publicly threatened to challenge Koch, Dinkins, Rangel, and various other veteran office-holders. But mostly what he’s done is talk and spend a lot of time, Hamlet-like, stalking the ramparts.
What’s different now is that Butts knows the years are slipping away, and if he doesn’t act soon, political opportunity will pass him by forever. By most measures, he’s still a relatively young man – but not in political years, not for a first-time campaigner. But even as all of the external factors line up and point him toward a run, ultimately his heart will have to truly be in it. So the question remains: Is this finally Calvin’s moment?
Does he really want to be the most powerful black man in New York? Is his hunger for wider influence and approval so deep (think Rudy Giuliani or Bill Clinton) that he’s willing to take the relentless pounding that’s become as much a part of political life as shaking hands? And is he willing to make the switch from someone people revere as a man of integrity, a man of God, to someone whose motives will most often be viewed as suspect?
Despite his burning ambition to have a deep and lasting impact on black politics in New York, part of him remains conflicted. He’s worried he’ll be sullied by a run for office. “Every time I get close,” he says, “I hear about some back-room deal or some terrible compromise and I start to reconsider. It just breaks my heart.”
Nevertheless, he’s insistent about his desire. “I wanted to be out in the political arena a long time ago,” Butts says, “but I had an obligation to the church and I kept that obligation. I served the church well. I was a good minister in terms of my priestly functions. I was a community activist. I mean, I’ve been doing this a long time: arguing cases, taking up unpopular causes, marching into the schools demanding to see the book closets, challenging principals, fighting police brutality, marching down Eighth Avenue and up 125th Street against drugs, organizing the campaign against tobacco, protesting rap-music lyrics. I’ve waited to go into politics because I’ve had other obligations.”
The personal dilemma Butts is struggling with actually reflects a wider conflict in the black community. For the first time in a long time, there is serious debate among blacks about what kind of leadership is needed and what kind of leadership will be most effective heading into the next century. As the years have passed and progress in the post-integration era has remained painfully slow for many segments of the black population, there is a growing belief that it is time to move beyond dependence on the combustible, charismatic, civil-rights-style agitator.
Some think it’s time to move beyond mass social movements or grand, sweeping legislation toward smaller, real-world victories like renovating one block of apartment buildings at a time, recapturing one school, or reopening abandoned retail space; steps that cumulatively, over time, turn whole neighborhoods around.
‘The African-American community is going through a major transition in terms of models of leadership,” says Deborah Wright, who, as president and CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, is Harlem’s reigning economic czar. “And Reverend Butts is right in the middle of it.” Wright, whose brother, father, and grandfather are ministers, knows the difficulties Butts has to face intimately. “It’s very tough,” she says. “It’s a very, very fine line he’s walking. I’m sure there are a lot of people pushing Calvin: ‘Speak for us, run for us.’ Because everybody’s always searching for that one star that’s gonna lead us to the next place,” says Wright, whose aunt is activist Marian Wright Edelman.
“So he’s caught in a situation in which he’s struggling to determine the best way to leverage the power of his church and who he is, to deliver the best results to his community. Advocacy is expected at Abyssinian because of its traditions. So he’s really got the perfect platform to grab the next step. Except what is that?”
A Butts candidacy would make a clear statement that it’s no longer necessary for a black leader to unfailingly adhere to a rigid ideological line to have credibility in the community – whether the issue is Louis Farrakhan, Clarence Thomas, or affirmative action. Or he could leave the preeminent position of leadership among New York’s black politicians to the once-again newly ascendant Al Sharpton. Unlike Butts, Sharpton suffers no bouts of ambivalence or uncertainty about his role.
Though he is at the moment scratching his head over whether to challenge Ed Towns for his Brooklyn congressional seat – to “punish” the recalcitrant Democrat for supporting Rudy Giuliani – Sharpton knows that his overall success depends on his ability to keep moving forward, to sustain his momentum. It is the Satchel Paige school of political activism: “Don’t look back, ‘cause something may be gaining on you.”
Say what you will about Sharpton – it’s pretty much all been said already anyway – but the truth is, he’s committed to what he does. To many people he may be a charlatan and a blowhard, the ringmaster of the racial circus that has played in this city on and off for the last decade, but political and social activism inhabit every cell of his ample body. Like all politicians who rise above the pedestrian, he’s obsessed; he’s willing if not eager to sacrifice just about everything else in his life (again, think Rudy Giuliani).
The night I talked to him about Butts and the future of black leadership, he was at home in Flatbush, where dinner guests were arriving to help him and his wife, Kathy, celebrate their seventeenth wedding anniversary. Sharpton was perfectly happy, however, to talk to me for as long as necessary to answer my questions, to make his points, and to get his fix.
“If Jesse Jackson hadn’t run in ‘88 and we hadn’t had Yusuf Hawkins, then we wouldn’t have had Dave Dinkins,” Sharpton argues. “Social movements are what excite people. You cannot show me any city,” he says, in defense of the social-activist model, “where a guy building supermarkets was elected mayor. If you go to the corner of 125th and Lenox or the corner of Atlantic and Nostrand and talk about black leaders, Butts is probably not a name you would hear. But if you wanna talk about elite white power circles, well, he’s got that access.”
It’s ironic but of course no surprise that the things that would seem to make Butts a strong potential candidate, at least to a white person, are precisely the things that can still cast a shadow over his credibility in the black community. “If he runs he’s gonna have to explain his access to Pataki. He’s gonna have to explain his relationship with D’Amato. He’s gonna have to explain his access to downtown money,” says Sharpton, blithely dismissing the broad significance of residential and commercial development in inner-city communities.
For Butts, perhaps the key lesson about political power and having the means to affect people’s lives was learned on the very block where Abyssinian stands. It was there, on 138th Street, that he learned how wide the chasm is between rhetoric and results.
“When I first came to work at Abyssinian,” says Butts, who lives in Harlem with his wife and three children, “I was on the streets with the kids all the time. I was young myself 22, and I was always playing ball with them, dancing with them, and talking with them. Several of our members lived right across the street, and they were always giving me food. Ernestine Brown would sit at her first-floor window and she’d holler, ‘Reverend, we’re cookin’ – come take home some food for your family.’ She’d give me fried fish, corn bread, bread pudding.
“And then one day I turned around and nothing was there. The building had been abandoned. I knew the man who owned it, brother Hunter. He and his wife had worked all their lives and they lost the building to rising city taxes.” The same thing was happening all over Harlem. Abyssinian continued to thrive, but by the mid-eighties, nearly half of its 6,000-member congregation drove in on Sundays from the five boroughs and the suburbs.
The buildings opposite the church, once home to proud working-class families, were now burned-out, abandoned shells. Crackheads and drug dealers hung out on the corners. It was a terrible embarrassment for Butts and for the church. What did it say about the impact and the reach of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and its congregation if they couldn’t even take care of their own block?
By the middle of 1986, Butts had finally had enough. He stood in the pulpit at Abyssinian on a Sunday and in a memorable, impassioned sermon he challenged the congregants to join him in a fight to take back 138th Street and eventually the rest of the neighborhood. The result of that plea was the birth of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which now has a portfolio of investments in Harlem totaling $65 million. And the two buildings opposite the church – which were abandoned in the late seventies – where Ernestine Brown used to sit by her first-floor window and call Butts to come get some food have been completely renovated. One is now transitional housing for homeless families, and the other is home to the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a childcare center, and low- and moderate-income housing.
“Calvin plays an extremely important role in the community,” says Dennis Walcott, head of the New York Urban League. “He’s galvanized a younger urban and suburban base of parishioners who identify with his message and the idea of giving back to the community. He’s shown that economic development improves the life of a neighborhood and the life of the people that neighborhood serves.”
And this is, according to political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, what now matters most in politics. “The era of symbolism is over. What everyone wants from government – whites, blacks, and Hispanics – is performance. Look at the election numbers. The people who deliver,” says Sheinkopf, “are the ones who get re-elected.”
Nevertheless, Sharpton still contends that Butts’s work as a builder in Harlem would mean little in a campaign to someone in Brooklyn or Queens. “I’m telling you that he doesn’t have the support in the black community that white people downtown might think he does. When I run, I get Calvin’s group and Floyd Flake’s. If he runs, he won’t get mine and he might not even get Flake’s. I think I could beat Calvin in his own church,” Sharpton says, never shy about pushing the hyperbole.
“If you look over the last decade at the movements that have stirred black New York,” says Sharpton, who’s undoubtedly still angry that Butts supported Messinger against him in the primary, “from Bensonhurst to Abner Louima, Butts has not been involved. He’s chosen the inside path, and that’s fine – it’s worked for his church. But that’s not the same thing as running for office. If he went on black radio WLIB and said, ‘Well, I had to have access to power to take care of my church,’ people will say, ‘Fine. Then that’s where you need to stay.’
“If Calvin Butts, whom I’ve preached for, whom I talk to, came to my house right now and said, ‘Al, I want to run for mayor in 2001,’ he could not assume I would support him. Based on what? He’s black? Which is why I would argue that he has never actually run. In his heart of hearts, Calvin knows he doesn’t have the support. I think he knows if he put it to the test he’d have a problem.”
On the other hand, there are those who would say that it is Sharpton, with his rigid adherence to the old social-activist model – not to mention his connection to tragedies like the Tawana Brawley episode – who has the problem. “Al is reflecting what I’d call traditional, lame thinking,” says Time Warner president Richard Parsons. “That’s why so much of the political force coming out of the black community has gone exactly nowhere. Because at the end of the day, blacks are no different from whites. People want results. They make judgments by asking, ‘Is my life better? Do I have a better opportunity for a secure and meaningful job? Are they picking up the garbage in front of my house? Can I go to the store at ten in the evening without being accosted?
“Now,” says Parsons, who’s known Butts and worked with him on a variety of projects for over a decade, “it’s because many of those things aren’t working and aren’t the way they should be that there’s a kind of residual, low-grade anger. This results in an immediate attraction to and identification with anyone who seems to have the temerity to stand up and face the Man. But it’s very transient, and it’s never going to get Al where he wants to go. It’s the politics of failure and we’ve got decades to show that.”
Though Butts sounds disappointed when told of Sharpton’s assessment, he responds with equanimity. He has nothing to gain by getting into what he calls a rock-throwing contest with Sharpton (if he weren’t a minister, he would, of course, have called it a pissing contest). “I would expect Al to say that I have good credentials on these issues and I deserve to be listened to. Is it true that I have not been marching and demonstrating? Yeah. But the real issue is what have I been doing?” Butts says.
“I think marching and demonstrating is very, very important, but I have also recognized that the change that we need is going to come by amassing real political power. I will march. I will demonstrate. I will raise hell. And I will kick in some doors if I have to,” Butts says, his voice rising gradually as his passion builds. “But you have to build alliances. You have to build coalitions. You have to raise substantial amounts of money in order to really bring about the kind of change that is needed. Being ‘out there’ can be defined in many ways,” he says, not in defense of his actions but to point out what the years have taught him.
“The way I’ve been ‘out there’ is by trying to create jobs, by building housing, by bringing investment opportunity, by building bridges to the corporate community. And I would expect,” he says, pausing for a moment to take a deep breath and perhaps not let out his anger, “I would expect that Al would tell people I don’t come to this empty-handed. The same way that I point out the value of his work when people say to me, ‘What’s he done? He’s never run anything, he’s never built anything, and he’s never won anything.’ “
Stripped to its essence, the debate is really about more than who will run for what particular office in any given election. At its core, this debate is about who will set the black community’s agenda for the foreseeable future, how these goals will be pursued, and who will lead the charge.
Butts has an opportunity to demonstrate that it is possible for a black leader to amass what he calls “real political power,” the power to get things done, without being branded a sellout. To maintain these channels, he successfully walks in two worlds – uptown, or the black world, and downtown, the white world. “More than anything else,” says United Way president Ralph Dickerson, “you live and die by who you are. You’ve got to be yourself in both venues. You’ve got to bring all your collective wisdom and be the same person on the sixtieth floor of Chase Plaza or at Time Warner as you are when you’re talking to the church deacons or some young people in central Harlem. If you change in either place, then you know what names they want to paint on brothers when that happens.”
Butts is articulate and forthright, but there is another key to his current success and future prospects. Though no one is likely to say it out loud, Butts is the kind of black man with whom white people feel comfortable. Even before his transformation, when he was more strident, he was the downtown choice among the activists. White editors would often tell reporters working on stories about black issues to find out what Butts thinks. Unlike Sharpton, with his fiery street style and his funky, neo-James Brown processed hair, Butts is far from a threatening figure. With his soft features and his wire-rim glasses, he has a sweet, almost studious look. His only concession to hipness is the small jazz beard that, like his buddy Wynton Marsalis, he wears under his lower lip.
“Calvin is a very easy person to feel comfortable with and to trust,” says Carol Parry, executive vice-president of Chase Manhattan Bank, who has financed a number of projects for Butts, including the Pathmark. “He’s outgoing. He’s … he’s a minister, know what I mean? He loves you and he brings it with him when he comes into a room.”
The great danger in all of this for Butts, or any other black leader who works on the inside, is that he will lose his street credibility: that he will be damned with the charge that he’s not black enough. A perfect example of how even an unassailable truth can be distorted beyond recognition when viewed in the funhouse mirror of racial politics – and the damaging impact it can have on a leader like Butts – is the recent case of the Reverend Henry Lyons. Lyons is head of the National Baptist Convention, the largest black religious group in America, with more than 8 million members. It has for decades been a bedrock institution that blacks have looked to for leadership. Over the summer, Lyons’s wife was arrested for setting fire to a $700,000 waterfront home in Florida.
As the story unfolded, it turned out that Lyons had bought the house, a $135,000 Mercedes, a time-share condo, and a diamond ring for a woman named Bernice Edwards, his mistress. Lyons also had the woman, who had once pleaded guilty to embezzlement, on the religious organization’s payroll as a public-relations consultant and had paid her $440,000. When his wife found out, she set the house ablaze in anger. (She eventually pleaded guilty.)
Shortly after the story broke, the National Baptist Convention held its annual get-together, where Lyons’s leadership was put to the test with a no-confidence vote. Butts led the charge against Lyons, demanding his ouster. How could he lose? Here was a man up for re-election as head of a national religious organization who had lied, committed adultery, misused substantial amounts of the organization’s funds, embarrassed himself, his family, and the other religious leaders, and severely damaged the group’s credibility. It was, for Butts, an absolute slam dunk.
Nevertheless, Butts lost. Lyons easily survived the vote. Though he offered a number of bogus explanations to excuse his behavior, Lyons ultimately relied on one of the classic contemporary strategies of the guilty in this age of no personal accountability: He claimed he was the victim of a white media conspiracy. On the morning of the voice vote at the convention, flyers were placed on every seat in the hall screaming about the white conspiracy.
Butts, in fact, is already viewed by many of the other ministers as a renegade, and his unsuccessful battle to oust Lyons may only isolate him further. The potential damage is that Lyons’s allies in New York will not support Butts if he runs for office. And Butts would need help from his peers in the clergy to solidify and mobilize his natural base. (Lyons’s close friend is the Reverend Samuel Austin, head of the Empire State Missionary Baptist Convention.)
“What I hear from other preachers,” says Sharpton, whose mayoral bid was enthusiastically supported by Lyons, “is that they see this as Calvin grandstanding. They say Calvin will attack a black guy – whether it’s Mike Tyson or Lyons or the rappers – ‘cause he knows the white media will give him coverage. But where’s Calvin on racial incidents? Where’s Calvin when white cops shoot us? They felt Calvin knew Lyons was an easy shot.”
Butts, however, is resolute. “There was a time when I felt that in order to maintain my credibility in the black community there were certain things I probably should not say about certain black people or certain things I should not do regarding white people,” Butts says. “But I have to act on what I believe based on my experience. One of the characteristics of a leader is you’ve got to be willing to stand up and say this is the direction in which we need to go when people are not sure. And then you’ve got to have nerve enough to start walking out in that direction to lead and to map the course for those who’ll follow.”
Sitting in his softly lit office at the church one afternoon, with its cherry-wood furniture and wine-colored carpeting, Butts leaned back in his chair and remembered the first time he visited Abyssinian. He was 11 years old, and a cousin took him up to Harlem from his house in Queens. At Abyssinian, they sat in the balcony. “I’d never been in a church that large, with that many people, and that much excitement,” Butts said with obvious emotion. “I don’t really remember much about what Adam Clayton Powell Jr. said, I just remember the overall scene and that he seemed so much larger than life. He was like a god.”
Butts doesn’t talk about it much, but he feels the weight of Abyssinian’s legend. He knows he’s part of a long tradition of independent leadership at the church, which itself was founded as the result of a protest. In 1808, a handful of blacks and Ethiopian merchants were told at a white Baptist church downtown that they’d have to sit in the balcony, away from the white people, if they wanted to worship. Instead of agreeing to the segregation, they formed their own church and named it for the old-world word for Ethiopia: Abyssinia.
One hundred years later, on the next-to-last day of 1908, Abyssinian was taken over by a rising young gospel star from Connecticut named Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Powell preached about pride, self-reliance, discipline, and black unity. He also combined theology with politics, always pushing the power of the ballot to his parishioners. Sensing the change that was happening uptown, Powell led the church in 1920 to buy property on 138th Street next to Marcus Garvey’s black-nationalist headquarters. Powell’s timing was impeccable. It was the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, and in 1923 Powell moved the congregation to a large tent uptown. Fourteen months later, construction of Abyssinian’s present home was completed and the congregation exploded to nearly 14,000.
The Powell era not only continued but was actually enhanced and amped up when Adam Jr. took over from his father in 1937. Known affectionately throughout Harlem simply as Adam, he was a towering figure in the black community: A gifted preacher, an extraordinarily popular congressman, and a bit of a rogue, Powell was the modern archetype of the influential black preacher as politician. He was proud, he was defiant, and he was effective. He fought segregation, he pushed student-loan legislation, and he brought federal dollars into his community.
First elected to Congress in 1944, he served fourteen terms in the House. But in the sixties, near the end of his career, it was clear that Powell had been spending more time in his later years satisfying his appetite for living than taking care of his responsibilities. In 1967, he was denied his seat in Congress because of charges he had misused House money. By the time of his retirement in 1971 and his death a year later, everything had changed: He had fallen from grace, Abyssinian was withering, and Harlem was dying.
When the Reverend Dr. Samuel Proctor took over the church in 1972, it was a mess. A former college president and a professor, Proctor was as reserved and task-oriented as Powell was flamboyant and scattered. Methodically, he got the church’s finances back in order, he began to build up the congregation again, he instituted new programs and services, and he assiduously stayed out of the limelight. He also hired a 22-year-old assistant pastor, who was completing his first year of seminary, named Calvin Butts.
Butts began his life on the Lower East Side in the Lillian Wald Projects. When he was 8, his family moved to Queens. His father was a cook at the Black Angus steakhouse and his mother was an administrator in a city welfare office. Butts spent many summers visiting relatives in the South, particularly his grandmothers, who were devoted Christians. They lived near one another in rural Georgia, where Butts was often taken to church. He was bused to junior high in Forest Hills at a time when anti-busing protests were widespread and vehement. And he attended mostly white Flushing High School, where he was elected senior-class president.
At Morehouse College, he studied black history, and he got caught up in the radical spirit of the times. He majored in philosophy and minored in religion, and his intention was to teach. “But one summer day I was walking across the Morehouse campus,” Butts says, “when a friend of mine who’d graduated the year before said, ‘Hey, Butts, I’m here recruiting for the seminary. What are you doing with your life?’ I felt led by God because doors just kept opening in that direction.”
Butts attended Union Theological Seminary in New York, and it was there that another serendipitous incident changed his life. He was in his first year when Adam Clayton Powell Jr. died and the dean happened to mention to him one day that Abyssinian had a new pastor who was looking for bright young assistants. Butts and Proctor seemed a perfect match. Proctor was wise, reserved, and low-key, while Butts was inexperienced but outspoken, energetic, and charismatic.
When I ask Butts about role models, he mentions Proctor, longtime Morehouse College president Benjamin Elijah Mays, and well-known ministers Gardner Taylor and William Augustus Jones. The only surprise is Jesse Jackson. “The reason I mention Jesse,” Butts says, “even though I’m sometimes very critical of him and there’s not that great a difference in our ages, is that when you’re 15 and Jesse’s 21 and you see him out there in this big Afro and overalls and he’s shouting, ‘I am somebody,’ and he’s out there with Dr. King in the front of the struggle, this tall, good-looking, articulate young black man – that’s impressive to a teenager. He was an example as a young minister of what could be done. Of course, as you grow and learn more about the struggle, you are better able to sift through these things,” Butts says, letting his voice trail off.
His disappointment with Jackson offers insight into his own view of the responsibilities of leadership: “I wanted Jesse to spend more time organizing the Rainbow Coalition so it could be a true political force. That didn’t happen. I wanted him to finally run for something that he could win – a Senate seat in South Carolina, a congressional seat. So he’d have someplace where he could settle and still have the ability to move around the country and speak and inspire people and articulate the issues. But where he could also have some profound impact on the laws, where he could be a powerful and positive force in Democratic politics. Getting voters registered and bringing them to the table was important but it wasn’t enough. It hasn’t translated itself into the kind of political influence we as a people need.”
Though Butts believes he has been able to develop the right kind of influence, he continues to get hammered for working closely with both Governor Pataki and Senator D’Amato. “He’s entitled to those relationships,” Sharpton says, “but people are gonna say he’s not been with us; he’s been with them. He’s gonna have to explain where he is politically.”
“I felt that Mario Cuomo had taken the black community for granted, and I don’t think George Pataki is doing that,” Butts says. “I don’t agree with him on everything, but he’s been very good on economic development. And I’m certainly willing to defend my relationship with a politician who as far as I’m concerned has credibility, keeps his word, and to whom I have access. It doesn’t mean I’ve sold out.”
If Butts runs, it will undoubtedly be on the Democratic line, and it remains to be seen whether his work with the Republicans will hurt him. “He’s engaging in the kind of conduct,” says State Senator David Paterson, whose baby was christened by Butts, “that twelve or thirteen years ago he would have condemned. If Charlie Rangel and powerful Democratic state assemblyman Denny Farrell had been doing what he’s doing right now, he would have been screaming about it. So there’s certainly been a metamorphosis of his philosophy.”
The likeliest and most logical political scenario for Butts is a run against Congressman Rangel. It’s his home district, it’s where he’d presumably have the strongest grass-roots support, and it has an ironic historical precedent: Rangel was the young upstart who defeated Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Rangel says he is gearing up for a challenge from Butts and has already begun – though the race is ten months away – doing polls, having strategy sessions, and for the first time hiring a fund-raiser. Rangel echoes what is probably the most common criticism of Butts: he’s inconsistent.
“In one interview, Calvin supported Ruth Messinger, then said if Giuliani would come around, he could support him, and then he said he might be a candidate himself,” Rangel says. “I told him I’m a poker player and the way we play poker is unless you sit down at the table and ante up, you don’t win.”
And that, in the final analysis, is clearly what Butts needs to do. If he believes the path he has chosen is the one, 30 years after Martin Luther King’s death, that black leaders ought to follow, he needs to sit down at the table and ante up.