Three months ago Jonathan Butler was just another graduate student, hitting the books on the Columbia campus at the University of Missouri.
Monday evening he delivered the keynote address at the main event of one of the largest Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances in the country outside of Atlanta.
In November, Butler went on a weeklong hunger strike that put him at the forefront of a student protest against systemic racism on the campus. The protest led to a football players’ strike, the resignation of the university system president and the reassignment of the chancellor.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City invited Butler to speak at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church for this year’s event, entitled “A Legacy of Struggle: A Commitment to Justice and Equality.”
Butler was chosen “to engage the young generation and let them know that we support their effort, that we stand with them,” said Arlana J. Coleman, King celebration event planner for SCLC.
“I think Martin Luther King Jr. would be encouraged to see that young people are getting involved in a positive way,” Coleman said.
Before taking the church stage, Butler talked briefly with The Star about the campus protests that set off a movement for inclusion replicated at colleges across the country, how he came to be a leader in the effort and how his life has changed since then.
Butler is only 25, but he talked like a seasoned community activist and stressed that the protest movement is ongoing, lest what happened on his campus be dismissed as just a moment in time.
He defined himself as “an engaged citizen who is willing to sacrifice for change … fighting for a more humane, a more democratic and a more holistic society.” He was reluctant to identify himself as a civil rights activist.
Butler said he got his first taste of civic engagement as a young child who was raised in the church and inspired by his grandfather, a church leader in New York, and his mother, who is the leader of a church in Omaha, Neb., where he grew up.
“They really showed me what it meant to care for the people, to care for the community and also to do what is right,” Butler said. “Those strong examples are what really prepared me to serve others, and I think that is the essence of leadership.”
But what he wasn’t prepared for was the backlash that followed the MU protest — from the hate email he and other black student leaders received, to people on social media doubting the sincerity of his hunger strike and accusing him and other student protesters of being weak whiners and lying about overt racial incidents on campus.
“Mean-spirited,” Butler called them.
“I don’t think there is any true way to be prepared for that,” he said. “Again I just leaned on my faith to get me through those times.”
What happened at MU — that the university administration responded — was not only because of the Concerned Student 1950 November protest but because of other small student protests led at different times by black, LGBTQ and Jewish groups that began popping up on campus ever since a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., fatally shot Michael Brown in 2014.
“That is something really beautiful that came out of post-Ferguson; that there was a community that was built,” Butler said.
He said that since MU protests, which gained national attention, his life has become more public.
“A lot more people have access to my life.” Some, he said, want to criticize everything he says and does while others look to him as an example. He said he doesn’t consider himself a role model, but has received letters and emails of support from people of all ages.
“I think it is just that a variety of people are inspired by the power of the singular voice to make change,” Butler said.
Butler said he is focused on finishing his graduate degree in education leadership but looks forward to continuing to watch for more inclusion on the MU campus.
“I have invested so much in the movement, even prior to all of this exposure. I am truly invested in getting everyone liberated and getting everyone free. Everyone has a life purpose, and I think that’s what my life goal is.”