Mizzou student who protested racism wins Ford award
Detroit — Most winners of Ford Freedom Awards are in the middle or end of long, illustrious careers.
Jonathan Butler hopes he’s at the beginning of one.
Butler, 25, who received a Courage Award on Tuesday night, wasn’t even out of college when his exploits garnered national attention.
His seven-day hunger strike last year helped topple the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri.
He and other students were frustrated by the school’s response to complaints about racism on campus.
He said the protest showed the importance of people coming together for a cause.
“All of our struggles are united,” he said. “Nobody gets free until we all get free.”
Other recipients of awards at the 18th annual Ford Freedom Award dinner were former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing; author Shaka Senghor, a criminal justice reform advocate; former Detroit Lion Kerlin Blaise, who now owns Detroit-based Blaze Contracting; and the late attorney Reginald F. Lewis, a Wall Street lawyer and philanthropist.
Usher, the Grammy-winning singer, was among celebrities to attend, including Jerome Bettis, a Detroit native who became a star running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Award winners were feted at the dinner at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. The event was sponsored by Ford and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Butler said his actions grew from another event in Missouri — the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white policeman in Ferguson.
Butler, a graduate student studying educational leadership, and other students joined in the protests there. He said the 120-mile treks exposed him to large-scale collective actions for the first time.
“It was inspirational to see all these people come together,” he said.
The students began to complain about racism closer to home, including years of racist remarks at college parties. When they felt the administration wasn’t listening to their concerns, they began to protest.
Butler decided not to eat until school President Tim Wolfe left office. He hoped it would bring attention to their cause.
The hunger strike drew national attention and the support of others, including the school’s football team. Not only did Wolfe resign but so did school Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
Butler attributed the success to all the students who joined in the protest.
“It wasn’t just one person,” he said. “It was a community effort, people fighting different causes.”
He said he was uncomfortable with the attention, which has followed him since the resignations.
He speaks at colleges across the country and, in January, delivered the keynote address at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.
And, on Tuesday, he walked the red carpet at the Fisher Music Center to pick up his latest accolade.