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One on One with Jonathan Butler

Mizzou student whose hunger strike became a cause celebre sits down before his MLK keynote speech

Jonathan Butler at MLK event in Kansas City, Mo.
Jonathan Butler addresses the crowd Jan. 18 at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, the final event in a 10-day commemoration of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo: Joshua Atkinson | Flatland)
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 19, and has been updated with video from the event. Click on the play button above to hear excerpts from Jonathan Butler’s speech at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church Jan. 18.

Long before Jonathan Butler held a hunger strike at the University of Missouri, sparking a campus-wide protest and national debate about race relations that would ultimately lead to university president Tim Wolfe’s resignation, Butler had developed a heart for social justice watching his grandfather, uncle, and other family members preach from the pulpit in church as a young man.

“As silly as it may sound, at age six or seven, watching them was my aha moment,” Butler told Flatland in the basement of the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church. “Comprehending what it means to be involved in social justice is something that came to me at a very young age,” he said.

Two hours later Butler would have his own chance in the pulpit, delivering the keynote speech upstairs in the church’s sanctuary at the 2016 Dr. Martin Luther King Mass Celebration held by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. (SCLC) This year marks their 47th MLK celebration.

“To be on this platform, on this day as we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, is a humbling honor and I am extremely grateful for it,” Butler said to begin.

The 25-year-old graduate student’s speech largely focused on the “consequences of silence” and often referred to the “unfinished business” of Dr. King, SCLC’s first president.

“He (King) is the man who taught us that human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and my favorite word, ‘struggle,’” Butler said.

“Dr. King believed in the urgency of now when fighting injustice,” Butler said. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today, and in this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. There is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action. So if we don’t act now, then when? If we don’t do it, then who?” he said.

During his speech Butler also addressed his hunger strike at the University of Missouri, and what led him to the decision to go without food.

“When I first contemplated going on a hunger strike and protesting the incompetent leadership, the racism that was going on, the hatred that was going on, that was allowed to be going on campus, I started contemplating what I could do,” Butler told the crowd of about 300 in attendance.  “And even though I had taken part in marches and protests, I was still being silent because I was not struggling. As I looked inward I realized I was not doing enough.”

In our interview, Butler told Flatland that Martin Luther King’s dream and fight continues today. Contrary to the notion that some may have that race relations have improved since King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the world has not progressed as far as  some might think.

“Not that much has changed since the time of Dr. King, not much has changed at all,” Butler said. “Just because Barack Obama was elected, and we have had several other African-American figures and people of color be elected and or be in prestigious venues and platforms doesn’t mean that anything has truly changed. We still have systemic issues that have been here since the beginning of time that we need to continue to fight against.”

This story is part of the KCPT and Hale Center for Journalism project “BeyondBelief,” a series of stories and discussions about faith and the different faith traditions in our diverse city. The project is part of Localore: Finding America, created by AIR, a Boston-based network of independent public media producers. Principle funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Learn more about “Beyond Belief” here.

Below is the full transcript of Flatland’s interview with Jonathan Butler.

Daniel Boothe: Can you tell me about the speech you plan to make at the Mass this evening?

Jonathan Butler: “The Speech tonight is definitely going to be about revolving around current happenings, the black lives matter movement which has been an intricate part of everything that is going on in terms of the pursuit for justice in search of police brutality, as well as economic justice, also going to be touching on civil rights, human rights and the pursuit of social justice.”

You have stated publicly that the University of Missouri’s campus was “unlivable” since the moment you arrived. Do you feel that the lack of equality and acceptance at MU is a microcosm of a nationwide campus epidemic, or do you feel it is a problem unique to the University of Missouri?

“It absolutely is a microcosm of the bigger picture. We are dealing with global issues, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, these are issues that happen globally, so it would be so false and so lazy, argument-wise, to claim that it is only happening at my university, the University of Missouri. So that is what I am really trying to hit on, that we do have issues specific to our campus and to our city, but at the end of the day we are fighting issues that are global issues.”

For people of an older generation, who lived through the civil rights movement, and in 2008 saw the election of an African-American as President of the United States as the paradigm of MLK’s dream being realized, those people may be naive when it comes to the current struggles of the next African-American community. Can you explain some of the challenges young people of color still face today on a regular basis?

“Not that much has changed since the time of Dr. King, not much has changed at all. We are still facing economic, social and political issues. Again, talking about the politics, we are not actually truly abiding by the word of democracy, in the sense that everyone has an equal opportunity. Even the access to be able to vote, again with the voter restriction laws and everything that is going on in terms of that, obviously, social issues that have been caused by the racist incidents, the xenophobic incidents, the bigotry that is going on. The economic injustice that is still going on. We have so many people in poverty, we have all this money to go after our global pursuits, but we can’t take care of the impoverished here in America. So we are still dealing with a plethora of issues. Just because Barack Obama was elected, and we have had several other African-American figures and people of color be elected and or be in prestigious venues and platforms doesn’t mean that anything has truly changed, we still have systemic issues that have been here since the beginning of time, that we continue, and need to fight against.”

The African-American community and fight for equality is so historically linked to the church. When we think of the civil rights movement, we of course think about the Rev. Martin Luther King, and so much of that movement is forever tied to the African American church, specifically the Baptist church. Today, the fight continues through the efforts of organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who of course works with people of all faiths to promote social justice. But for people of your generation, those who protested with you in Columbia, Missouri, how much do you feel the church is part of the next generation of people calling for social justice?

“I believe today it takes on different forms for different people. For me, I was brought up and raised in the church with generations upon generations of family members being truly engaged. Not just in community action of being in the church, but also being in the ministry aspect. So it is ingrained in me, but again, dealing with a plethora of people from different backgrounds, different religions, sexual identities, so many people, so today, I don’t believe there is one generic religious troupe that holds to the movement, it is so diverse, there are so many people from so many different backgrounds who contribute to the movement.

You mention your religious upbringing. I am curious, prior to the events in Columbia, had you always had a mind and heart for social justice, in the sense that you always considered yourself an “activist?” Was there an aha moment where you said, “Something is wrong, something has to be done?”

“As silly as it may sound, I think I was about six or seven when I first had the opportunity to kind of comprehend seeing people like my Uncles and my Grandfather and other members of my family speak in the pulpit. I think that was kind of my aha moment seeing that real life example of someone who not only shows love for me in various forms obviously from punishment and helping me learn and grow, to actually bringing me out to do prison ministry, going out into the community and speak with real people, so seeing all those levels of society and really comprehending what it means to be involved in social justice is something that came at a very young age. For me, that is the biggest thing. I have invested so much into the movement, prior to this exposure, and I am going to continue to do so. I am truly invested in getting everyone liberated and everyone free. I think everyone has a life purpose, and that’s what my life goal is.”

Can you tell me a little about how your life has changed since Tim Wolfe resigned, and did his resignation accomplish what you had hoped it would?

“I’ll frame it like this. Has my life changed? Absolutely, it has changed dynamically, and in subtle ways as well. The access to my life is very much different. Where as before, I was used to doing behind the scenes work, community organizations, what I do now is much more public. So really, just adapting to that, and truly understanding  what it means to hold a position, not that I’m a great person or I am worthy of prestige or anything like that, but because I now have visibility within the movement, just being cautious, and being aware that I am setting an example for others.”

In your opinion, what still needs to be done for MLK’s dream to be realized in our current community?

We still need to overcome all levels of oppression. We are still facing a heavily capitalistic government and society that disadvantages the poor and people of color, we still have sexism running rampant, we still have homophobia, all these things going on that the generation previous to us, the civil rights movement that accomplished so much, and we do stand on the shoulders of those titans and giants who did so much great work, but we need to continue it, because we must address the systemic and institutionalized issues of oppression that we all face, regardless of the color of your skin.

 — Reach Daniel Boothe at dboothe@kcpt.org.

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