Harlem’s own the Rev. Dr. Calvin Otis Butts III was laid to rest on Friday, Nov. 4, after news of his passing shook the nation. At his funeral, elected officials from all over the state and country were in attendance at Abyssinian Baptist Church, including former President Bill Clinton and Georgian U.S. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Butts, 73, was a political powerhouse who had been in bad health for quite some time due to an uphill battle with cancer. He died on Oct. 28. His approximately 5-hour-long funeral services at his beloved church were packed with mourners, followers, and political colleagues he’d worked with throughout the decades.
Some people made jokes, some read poetry or sang, some rallied people to their feet with memories of Butts’ great works, while others were much more somber in their remarks. Still, it was clear that all in attendance were deeply moved by the passing of Butts.
Clinton was the first elected official to speak at the podium. Clinton and Butts had been friends since his presidential election and he spoke to him not long before he passed. He said that Butts not only challenged him but demonstrated faith and wisdom in his lifetime that he had come to rely on.
“He can be blunt and tough but he had a beautiful spirit. And I learned a lot from him and I’m grateful for everything,” said Clinton. “I also occasionally took orders.”
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer shouted out Butts’ family and children, one of whom worked in his office. He spoke of Butts’ wide reaching network of supporters and disciples. “To all of these souls that the pastor touched from the pulpit here at Abyssinian, to all of the young minds that he cultivated at SUNY Old Westbury out on Long Island,” said Schumer. “Dr. Butts had a positive and indelible impact on all those he encountered. That the fruits of his labor can be found throughout our city, our state, our nation.”
New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was on the campaign trail at the time, stopped at the church to give her remarks. Hochul said that Abyssinian was the first stop she made as soon as she was made governor after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation. She asked for a “spiritual blessing” over her time in office from Butts. She called Butts a “beautiful candle” and light of empowerment that can live on.
“I came here because I knew that the place that was so steeped in history, a place where people created leaders. A place where elected leaders, spiritual leaders, community leaders were always in this church,” said Hochul. “And I knew that because I came here and worshiped as lieutenant governor.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said that he has been inspired by Butts throughout his career in law enforcement and as a senator and borough president in the city.
“I remember when music was demonizing Black women in our community, and he came with that big construction roller and rolled over the CDs,” said Adams. “And long before people were talking about ‘Don’t advertise alcohol and cigarettes in our community to harm our community,’ he had a white roller brush painting over the posters and said, ‘Lock me up if you want to, because I’m going to stand on truth.’”
Adams acknowledged that many in his administration, such as Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright and Schools Chancellor David Banks, came from Abyssinian. He concluded that he loved Butts and would truly miss him.
“We know how challenging this moment is,” said Adams. “It is for all of us, but nowhere in the contract of life does it say immortality is part of the deal. We’re all mortal. And I can rest assured in all my heart, all of the elected officials in this room he loved, but he adored me.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1