COLUMBIA, Mo. -- He penned his will on an autumn day, his 25-year-old life summed up by his three most coveted possessions. Jonathan Butler had a laptop, a stack of books and a backpack. He bequeathed each of the items to his friends.
Butler had spent more than a quarter of his life as a student at the University of Missouri, a Midwestern campus with a student population that is 77 percent white. And deep inside, he was reaching his breaking point. He'd been called the N-word, had his health benefits cut and witnessed overt acts of discrimination throughout the campus. Those acts seemed to escalate in the year since the Ferguson riots.
Every stand Butler tried to take yielded few, if any, results. On Oct. 10, Butler and his activist group Concerned Student 1950 staged a protest at the homecoming parade, blocking the convertible that carried Tim Wolfe, president of the Missouri university system. The driver revved his engine, and Wolfe eventually rode away without addressing the protesters' concerns. (Wolfe later met with the group, but didn't agree to any of their demands).
Feeling frustrated, Butler, in an interview Tuesday with ESPN.com, said he started reading up on the hunger strikes staged by Cesar Chavez and Dick Gregory. He saw how they helped impact change and decided to embark on one himself. Butler, a graduate student, was convinced Missouri would do nothing and ultimately he would die.
He held off on telling his friends about the hunger strike because he knew they would worry. Butler is the type of guy who gets something in his head and doesn't back down. When he was in high school, he was an unimpressive offensive lineman who had one final year to make varsity. So what did he do? He trained all summer, transformed his 5-foot-8 body into a rock-solid 240-pound beast and helped lead his Omaha Central High School team to a Nebraska state championship.
The situation at Missouri also motivated and consumed Butler. "For me," he said, "it was like, 'What else do I have to do to prove to you that I'm a human? That as a constituent of this university that I deserve to be heard and deserve to respected?'"
Butler composed a letter to the Missouri board of curators, the school's governing body, vowing that he would not consume food or nutritional sustenance until Wolfe was removed from office. It was Nov. 2, and a campus was about to be turned upside down.
Click here for the rest of Elizabeth Merrill's story on the past week at Missouri.