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Fordham GSE, The Abyssinian Baptist Church Commence Lecture Series Honoring Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III


In the months following the death of the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, in October 2022, two of the institutions where Dr. Butts had made a home—The Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he was pastor for more than 30 years, and Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education, where he had joined only recently as a distinguished visiting professor—began planning a way to celebrate his legacy of advancing social justice through the parallel paths of faith and education.

Those collaborative efforts came to fruition Monday, December 11, with a landmark event at the historic Harlem church, co-sponsored by The Abyssinian Faith & Education Ministry; Fordham’s Black Education: Faith, Race, and Educational Equity (BE: FREE) project, and Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning.

Billed as the Inaugural Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III Distinguished Lecture in Education, Faith, and Social Justice, the event, still viewable here, convened a powerful and probing conversation among three leading thinkers on that intersection of topics: Jelani Cobb, Ph.D., dean and professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; Nikole Hannah-Jones, professor at Howard University and creator of the 1619 Project; and Marc Lamont Hill, Ph.D., presidential professor of urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center, who served as moderator.

The plan for the lecture series grew out of conversations between Phillip A. Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor at Fordham GSE and leader of the university’s Black Education: Faith, Race, and Educational Equity (BE: FREE) project, and Rev. Dr. S. Raschaad Hoggard, who currently serves as Executive Minister for Abyssinian Baptist Church and recently published his doctoral research at Fordham GSE on Dr. Butts’s leadership.

The audience that filled the sanctuary at the inaugural event included Fordham faculty and students, Abyssinian and community members, several New York City college presidents, and at least one member-elect to the City Council. Additionally, Cardinal Hayes High School seniors from the President’s Men Leadership program volunteered and contributed to the success of the program.

In his introductory remarks, Dr. Smith noted that he and Rev. Hoggard hoped not only to honor Dr. Butts, but also “to continue to champion the work of Black education, Black education leadership, [and]social justice.”

Lauding Dr. Butts for his legacy of empowering students “to know they can make a difference in the world,” Fordham University President Tania Tetlow said, “I am so proud of this partnership between Fordham and Abyssinian as two institutions that believe in the other holy trinity of faith, education, and social transformation.”

After receiving a lengthy standing ovation, Rev. Hoggard echoed these remarks in praise of Dr. Butts, calling the lecture series both “a way to honor his life’s work, which is at the intersection of faith, education, and social transformation” and inspire a new generation of leaders committed to the same.

Expressing his deep sense of humility before “the legacy of Reverend Dr. Butts and his commitment to merging education and faith and social action,” Marc Lamont Hill introduced his fellow speakers, Jelani Cobb and Nikole Hannah-Jones, as rightful heirs, asking “who better to demonstrate and reflect and embody the legacy of Calvin Butts—the legacy of public intellectual life, the legacy of thought leads to action—than these two people right here.”

In a discussion punctuated by frequent applause and affirmations from the audience, Cobb, Hannah-Jones, and Hill explored the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action, the role of the church in the movement for civil rights and Black liberation, and the future of Black leadership in education.

Following Hannah-Jones’s assertion that too little attention has been paid to the Court’s June 2023 decision to effectively end race-conscious admission programs at U.S. colleges and universities, Cobb emphasized that the key metric of compliance with the purportedly “colorblind” ruling is “fewer Black students on campus” and thus would lead to devastating “downstream” effects.

“We know that Black doctors provide a higher quality of care to Black patients—you cut off that pipeline into higher education, you wind up with a greater healthcare disparity,” he said. “We know that one of the drivers behind the wealth gap is disparate home ownership. You cut off that pipeline into higher education, you widen that wealth gap…. It has the potential to make us revisit circumstances that were prior to the civil rights movement, which is what the objective [of the decision]is.”

Noting the significance of holding the conversation in an historic “activist church”—which, Cobb recalled, had hosted planning sessions for the 1999 Brooklyn Bridge march in protest over the murder of Amadou Diallo by NYPD officers—Hannah-Jones lamented the trend of churches disengaging from activism for fear of the financial consequences.

“The Black church has always been a place to organize,” she said. “We need churches playing that role again.”

While all acknowledged the serious challenges facing Black Americans amid the current political and economic moment, Cobb, Hannah-Jones, and Hill closed the conversation with notes of optimism.

Responding to a question from the audience regarding the fact that there are “only two Black male college presidents in New York City,” Cobb pointed to the city’s diversity as the perfect pipeline for future talent.

“What happened with the rollback of affirmative action is going to be catastrophic,” he said. “But in terms of New York City, it presents a rare point of opportunity that we need to maximize.”

Asked where she believed the “heart and power” lay in the Black community if not in the church, Hannah-Jones referred back to her earlier remark that Black advancement often came at the cost of individuals leaving their communities behind. 

“Our heart has always been in our community. This has always been the lifeblood of black people: other black people,” she said. “So, we can’t fix the entire country. But what I do know is that…everything that we need, we have within our own community.”

“That’s this room,” Hill interjected, gesturing to the audience. “This is the community, this is our heart, this is our power. We are each other’s hearts.”

In his concluding remarks, Hill again invoked the namesake of the lecture series in a call for courage and resilience.

“Rev. Butts understood, as Malcolm X taught us, that education is our passport to the future,” he said. “He talked about the idea that we cannot lose our aspirations to the events that are our immediate experience…. Although the world looks bad, we don’t have to be prisoners to this event, prisoners of this election, prisoners to this economy…prisoners to these statistics that are often telling us that Black folk can’t survive. Because at every juncture in history…they’ve always said that, and we’ve always won.”

Plans for subsequent lecture series events in the spring and fall of 2024 are underway and will be announced in the New Year.


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