In the early 1990’s, I sent a reporter to Harlem to cover a story on a Black preacher who took off his robe, put down his Bible and picked up paint brushes and rollers, painting over billboards that were advertising cigarettes. Rev. Calvin O. Butts III’s ministry of active engagement was garnering attention and getting noticed. And as you can imagine, corporations like Winston Salem, Reynolds, and Philip Morris – predatory enterprises that were fueling their tobacco products and preying on the young – were not happy.
In those days, almost every billboard in Harlem, and Black and Brown communities across America, were promoting smoking with slick ads, insidiously leading people to this very harmful habit – and Butts was not having it! Camel, Winston, Kool, Newport, Marlboro, and Lucky Strike were among the popular brands whose colorful billboards were painted white. With every stroke of his paint brush, Butts was sending messages to the community that we desire better than this, while he was challenging these corporations to health justice. This trumpeter of truth and trailblazer of justice stampeded into the New York spotlight challenging the status quo and hoisting high the banner of freedom through the salvific power of Christ.
Butts had conviction and the courage to go with it. He had depth and it was rooted in his duty; he lived a purposeful life, proclaiming from the pulpit what he practiced on the pavement.
Dr. Calvin Butts and I have had some misunderstandings and disagreements on style and approach on how faith and the pulpit should work to redeem and impact community. In fact, during much of the late 90’s, New York Times and other city reporters found great delight jumping between Butts, Dr. Floyd Flake, and I for opposing views and then published stories with us contradicting each other. Frankly, we did not know these reporters’ evil intent until we read the stories intimating that we as Black preachers were contradicting each other.
In truth, Dr. Butts guarded the sacredness of the pulpit and the sanctity of the church, and he believed that social activism fit better with the Jesus gospel than economic empowerment and business development. But in reality, his diligent effort to paint over corporate billboards and challenge these corporations is a central pillar on the road to economic justice and parity. The gospel of Black economic empowerment finally reached him, and this Morehouse graduate not only helped to lead the fight against poverty, but he has also been an advocate for economic development and a boardroom broker who helped to kick in the door to expanded opportunities for Black New Yorkers.
When Dick Gidron Cadillac, one of America’s first and premier Black-owned dealerships, was being treated unfairly by General Motors, it was Calvin Butts and I that helped to lead the negotiations with General Motors; and several years later when I showed up in federal court in Central Islip, Long Island with my friend Bill Adkins, owner of Palanker Chevrolet, in another case against General Motors, I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts. This man had an unquenchable thirst for justice and has always fought for Blacks to have their fair share and equal voice.
Several years ago, he raised concerns about McDonald’s Corporation. At issue was the living wage and the health quality of the food. Butts called and asked me to explain my support for McDonalds. I noted that I had no affinity to McDonald’s Corporation but because I know and have worked with most of the Black owned-operators in New York and New Jersey, I was concerned about how any action would impact them. The reverend understood, agreed, and adjusted his action.
My last conversation with this legendary preacher was several weeks ago. He talked about the strength of his family and the faith that keeps him going. Apprehensive yet assured. Prostrate yet positive. Reserved yet resolute! We prayed together and closed the call with the confidence of another conversation and, as usual, his voice was strong. Now that one of America’s leading ministers, educators and activists is gone, our follow-up conversation will have to take place when we get over yonder.
As noted by multi-Emmy winning producer A. Curtis Farrow, “God has called home our beloved brother, friend, and pastor. We will miss his brilliance, his leadership, and his ability and power as a drum major for peace – all while keeping God first and foremost in this turbulent environment.”
Although our pleasing moments with him are gone, our precious memories of him live on. The events we co-convened and the times we collaborated on behalf of our people and community have greatly overshadowed the misrepresented comments inked by any news reporter’s pen.
Butts was solid, strong, and spirited, and yes, his life has taken flight – but his legacy is now the new light!