Jonathan Butler: Meet the man whose hunger strike flipped the script at Mizzou

Top officials resign at University of Missouri
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Story highlights

  • Jonathan Butler started a hunger strike to demand the removal of Missouri University System President Tim Wolfe
  • Wolfe resigned on Monday, as did Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin
  • "The harder we fight, the greater the reward," the student leader tells CNN

(CNN)Jonathan Butler has often said the protests at the University of Missouri are not about him.

It's hard to imagine, however, their having had the same impact had he not chosen to start a hunger strike, demanding the removal of Missouri University System President Tim Wolfe.
    Bowing to pressure, Wolfe resigned on Monday. Butler ended his weeklong strike.
    On Twitter, the student leader thanked supporters and praised the power in solidarity.
    He said late Monday he never had any doubts.
    "A lot of people know how corrupt the system is, and they thought I was going to die from Day 1. From the moment I made my announcement, people thought I was a dead man walking," he told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360˚."
    "For me, especially with faith in God, I really didn't look at it from a deficit approach that I would die -- even though I took precautions that I might -- I really did come at this with an approach of victory, knowing that the fact that the harder we fight, the greater the reward," he said.
    Among those precautions?
    Butler updated his will and signed a do-not-resuscitate order. He left instructions of what he wanted to be done in the case of, say, a seizure of a coma.
    "This was not a light decision," said Butler. "I really took some time with consulting my spiritual leaders, my pastors and other mentors about this decision, and knowing that I am truly committed to this change, that's what I really set my heart on doing."

    'I felt unsafe'

    Butler is a graduate student at Mizzou, where he also did his undergraduate work.
    He told The Washington Post he studied business administration as an undergraduate and is pursuing a master's degree in educational leadership and policy. He likes school, skateboarding and hails from Omaha, Nebraska.
    Butler participated in the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which erupted after the shooting death of Michael Brown and helped to galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement.
    He said he felt motivated to act because of his experiences at the University of Missouri.
    "I felt unsafe since the moment I stepped on this campus," he told CNN. "My first semester here, I had someone write the n-word on my wall. I've been, physically, in altercations with white gentleman on campus."
    In a letter to announce the start of his strike, Butler detailed other incidents that, in his words, "dynamically disrupted the learning experience for marginalized/ underrepresented students."
    "In the past 90 days alone we have seen the MSA (Missouri Students Association) President Payton Head being called the n-word on campus, graduate students being robbed of their health insurance, Planned Parenthood services being stripped from campus, #ConcernedStudent1950 peaceful demonstrators being threatened with pepper spray, and a matter of days ago a vile and disgusting act of hatred where a MU student drew a swastika in the Gateway residential hall with their own feces," Butler wrote.
    The group #ConcernedStudent1950 is named for the year African-American students were first admitted to the university.
    "We love Mizzou enough to critique and to fight against the injustices that we face at this school," Butler told CNN.
    Mizzou student group reacts to president's resignation
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    'We owe him a lot'

    Shortly after the start of his strike, support began to build.
    There was a student boycott. A group of concerned faculty offered its support. Two graduate student groups called for walkouts.
    Missouri football players strike amid racism protest
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    But perhaps the most persuasive show of support came from the school's football team. Players, both black and white, threatened -- with their coach's support -- not to practice or play again until Butler ended his strike.
    "The past few days have been certainly extraordinary circumstances for many reasons -- for many reasons -- but primarily because a young man's life, Jonathan Butler, his life was at stake," Missouri Athletic Director Mack Rhoades told reporters Monday.
    "They've never seen a person dying in front of them," he said about student athletes. "And for many of these young men, that was real. And I think as they slept on it, and we met that next day, that Sunday, we had discussion, and it wasn't about any one person resigning. It was about what can we do to make sure that Jonathan Butler eats."
    In addition to Wolfe, the chancellor of the university also announced Monday that he would be stepping down, effective at the end of the year.
    Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin praised Butler in his address.
    "I want to acknowledge his extraordinary courage and leadership," he said. "A very tough, tough young man, a very focused young man, a very intelligent and forward-looking young man, so we owe him a lot."