John Sibley Butler was born on July 19, 1947, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Thojest and Johnnie Mae Butler. While attending the Washington Parish schools, Butler was in the honor society and played the trombone in the school band; he also was active in Little League baseball and the Boy Scouts.

Butler served in Vietnam in the 1960s. In 1969, he earned his B.A. degree from Louisiana State University. Continuing his education at Northwestern University as a Fellow of Social Change, Butler received his Ph.D. in sociology in 1974. After receiving his degrees, Butler taught M.B.A. programs in Mexico and Japan. Butler was the founding editor of the National Journal of Sociology, which he edited for 15 years. In 1988, the University of California at Berkeley sought Butler for a think tank on Testing and American Organizations.