In his introductory speech Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), President Vernon Howard wanted to let the audience know that “The Butler did it.” Jonathan Butler was the graduate student that started a hunger strike that gained national attention and eventually led University of Missouri Chancellor R. Bowin Loftin and UM President Tim Wolfe to resign from their positions.
Butler visited a packed Kansas City church as a guest speaker for the SCLC of Greater Kansas City’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King.
The celebration was at the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, ending more than a week’s worth of celebrations, including an interfaith service at Rockhurst University. Butler’s speech was preceded by a church service that included musical and dance performances from members of the Kansas City Christian community. Of special note was the “Tribute to Activists” performance by A Brother’s Love and Ashay from St. Mark Union church. Dancers dressed in black clothing and white face paint moved to “Glory,” the John Legend song from the movie Selma.
Ralvell Rogers, an Emporia State University student, gave a “Youth Reflection.”
“We are here today,” Rogers began, “because America must adhere to all of the teachings that Dr. Martin Luther King has presented to us.” Rogers reflected on the realities of racism in the twenty-first century and the actions young black people can take.
Before Butler could give an expectant audience an update on happenings at Mizzou, Taylor Fields, a Kansas City attorney and SCLC Treasurer, recounted his own experiences with racism on the campus. When Fields was in college, black students had to choose between living on campus and not attending college at all. This was because the university approved housing for buildings that would rent only to white students.
“I remember the first time that I engaged in a protest,” Fields said. “I remember we marched into [then-Chancellor John Schwadaa]’s office. He was a chain smoker. It irritated everybody. We said to him, ‘Chancellor Scwadaa, we don’t have a choice. We have to pay for tuition and room and board. We don’t have the option of living off campus.’ I’ll never forget the cold and calculated way he responded. He said ‘Yes, you have a choice. You can go back to your dorm, or you can go home.’”
Fields and his classmates continued protesting until MU changed its policy to only approve off-campus housing that allowed students of any color to live there.
After a solo performance by Reverend Janice Sprattling of St. Peter CME Church, the audience broke out into applause as Butler walked up to the podium.
Though it was late in the evening Butler riled up the audience by shouting, “Can I get a Hallelujah?”
“I want to make it very clear about my stance about everything that’s happened,” Butler said. “Nothing I’ve ever done or accomplished has been by myself. The things that I’ve been able to accomplish have, one, come from the divine power of God and, two, come from community members like yourselves.”
Butler then led the audience in a “call and response” chant. When Butler said Ashe, meaning “it is so,” the audience yelled “power.” Butler said this was chant he taught students at MU.
The theme of this year’s MLK celebration was “A Legacy of struggle, A Commitment to Justice and Equality.”
“I come to you to reclaim the word struggle,” Butler said, urging the audience to do the same for themselves, “and ask you one question for the evening: what is the consequence of your silence?”
Butler went through several definitions of the word “struggle,” but eventually settled on “to make great effort in the face of difficulties and opposition.” Butler then praised the “great efforts” of activists who came before him, from Harriet Tubman to Ella Baker.
“When I was first contemplating going on the hunger strike and protesting the incompetent leadership and the racism that was going on, the hatred that was allowed to be going on on campus, I started to explore my options,” Butler said. “What can I really do?”
Butler then shared some of his negative experiences at the MU campus.
“Being on campus, I’ve seen the N-word painted on my door, I’ve experienced white students who have jumped me.” Butler recalled being attacked by three white students the night of President Obama’s election. “I’ve seen my friend take her own life because she went to administration when she was sexually assaulted, only for the administration to sit on it for a year and a half.”
Butler was most likely referring to former MU swimmer Sasha Menu Courey, who in 2011 committed suicide after the university did not look into her sexual assault allegations against one or more football players. Courey’s parents publically supported Butler during the hunger strike, and Butler has spoken about Courey before.
Butler left with a message: “We all have a different role to play. Some of us are senators. Some of us are community activists. Some of us are reverends. . .but each of us are divinely created and divinely valued. You have a role to play in this movement.”