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“You don’t judge a man by his stumble, you judge him by his stride.” – Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III

The Legal Defense Fund (LDF) mourns the passing of Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, Senior Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, historically known as the largest black church in New York City and President of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. He was 73 years old.

Dr. Butts has served as Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the City of New York for over 30 years and was one of the most influential and beloved Black pastors of our time. His work in support of the Harlem community led to increases in affordable housing, education equity, and economic justice.

Dr. Butts helped establish a public, state-of-the-art, intermediate, high school in Harlem, and a lower school academy, both of which are named after LDF’s founder and first President and Director-Counsel, Thurgood Marshall.

Dr. Butts was represented by LDF in Butts v. City of New York (1985). Dr. Butts, representing a class of Black and Latino voters, fought unjust run-off primary laws that infringed upon the constitutional rights of voters to equal protection and due process. LDF and Dr Butts contended that operation of the run-off statute was intended to and in fact did make it more difficult for a Black or Latino candidate to emerge as the party nominee.

Many members of LDF staff have attended Abyssinian Baptist Church. Most notably, Julius Chambers, LDF’s third President and Director-Counsel, was a member of Dr. Butts’ congregation, as was LDF’s fifth President and Director-Counsel Ted Shaw and his family.

Dr. Butts received honorary degrees from Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; the City University of New York/The City College of New York and many others. For his community activism, Dr. Butts received innumerable honors and commendations, including the United Negro College Fund’s Shirley Chisholm Community Service Award, The Medal for Distinguished Service from Teachers College, Columbia University and Man of the Year, Morehouse College Alumni Association.

Dr. Butts is survived by his wife, Patricia Reed Butts, his three children and six grandchildren.

Janai Nelson, current LDF President and Director-Counsel:
“We send our most sincere condolences to the family, friends, and faith community of Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts. Reverend Butts was a trailblazing force in Harlem and across New York for generations, as well as a national icon of spiritual social justice and civil rights activism. He was also a cherished supporter and friend of LDF. He served the Abyssinian Baptist Church, its congregation, and his community for more than three decades and inspired countless leaders and worshipers around the world. We celebrate Rev. Butts’ legacy, mourn his loss, and stand in sympathy with all those he impacted throughout his life and career.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s seventh President and Director-Counsel:
“The platform of the pulpit at Abyssinian was a big one. It requires a leader of vision and power. In the tradition of its former pastor Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the Reverend Calvin Butts understood the kind of leadership Harlem expects and needs from this great church. And he delivered. Just last year we strategized together about the response of the Black church to hate crimes – and particularly to anti-Asian violence – in our city. He was always ready to demonstrate solidarity and resolve.”

Ted Shaw, LDF’s fifth President and Director-Counsel:
“As Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Rev. Butts was a force in the Harlem community. For decades he worked to improve education, employment, economic development, housing, health care and every aspect of life for the people of Harlem. I was not the first LDF Director-Counsel to have been pastored by Rev. Butts; during their time in New York, Julius and Vivian Chambers worshiped at Abyssinian. Other LDF staff members have been and are members of Abyssinian under Rev. Butts. Among the many things that I loved about Calvin Butts was his love of Black people. He was what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘a race man.’ He loved the struggle for equality, the literature and poetry of Black people, the various genres of Black music, the ways of Black folk. I loved Rev. Butts, and I shall miss him.”

Elaine Jones, LDF’s fourth President and Director-Counsel:
“Throughout my tenure as head of the LDF (1993-2004), Calvin Butts was steadfast and true to both LDF and me. He never said ‘no’ – not to an invitation to give opening and closing prayers at numerous LDF events, to attending meetings and conferences discussing impact of clergy on development of civil rights law, and to traveling to the nation’s capital promoting civil rights legislation. Losing those who care about our history and the downtrodden, who act upon that caring, those who are intellectually gifted and biblically centered is a bitter pill. I will remember him with admiration appreciation and love always.”

Diane Simmons, Legal Assistant, Litigation, LDF
“Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, was a mighty powerful man of God. He was a giant with a positive force in the lives of people all over the world, from my family to the Abyssinian Baptist Church to the Harlem Community. For 50 years, he stood at the helm as he helped guide, teach, and made social changes to uplift the oppressed. He was a man that stood on principle and no matter what we went through, he always told us to ‘Keep the Faith.’ He was a true man of God that not only spoke the word but walked in it. He stood on values, respect, and was the epitome of love for his people. I will miss my pastor dearly but know that his spirit will live within my heart forever. God has called him home, so he can rest from his labor to reward.”


Founded in 1940, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is the nation’s first civil rights law organization. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the Legal Defense Fund or LDF. Please note that LDF has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights.