Revisiting the legacy of John and Michael Spearman


Owen Musser

Lawrence High history teacher Valerie Schrag embraces Michael Spearman as the two share a heartfelt moment.

By Tessa Collar

Tears were shed by Lawrence High history teacher Valerie Schrag as she embraced brothers John and Michael Spearman in the same space Michael Spearman helped lead a sit-in in 1970 for more rights and representation for Black LHS students.

On Monday, May 2, 2022, alumni John and Michael Spearman– who helped shape Lawrence as it is today– returned to Lawrence High after over 50 years. The Spearman family played integral roles in the advancement of rights and representation for Black individuals in the Lawrence community, including in the fight for an integrated community swimming pool and more representation at LHS. 

John and Michael Spearman grew up in Lawrence and attended Lawrence High, graduating in 1968 and 1970, respectively. 

In 1970, Michael Spearman helped lead a sit-in for Black rights and representation at Lawrence High, helping form the school community and wider Lawrence into what they are today. This demonstration was directly responsible for multiple changes at Lawrence High, including the creation of the African American course taught at Lawrence High and more representation for Black individuals on the spirit squad, homecoming court and as teachers. 

As chairman of KU’s Black Student Union in 1970, John Spearman was also heavily involved in demonstrations for Black rights and representation. When Michael Spearman and his peers began to face opposition during the sit-in in Lawrence High’s principal office, John Spearman and others from the BSU came down to support the high school students protesting. 

The entire Spearman family was involved in the civil rights struggle in Lawrence. John Spearman Sr., John Jr. and Michael’s father, and their mother, Vernell Spearman, were heavily involved in many protests, including ones in support of an integrated swimming pool in town. John Spearman Sr. served as the first Black member of the USD 497 School Board.

During John Spearman Sr.’s time at Lawrence High, then Liberty Memorial High School, contact sports were segregated. By the time John and Michael Spearman began at LHS, both non-contact and contact sports had been desegregated. Michael and John Spearman were both involved in gymnastics, and Michael was involved in track. The gymnastics team were state champions the Spearmans’ entire tenure at Lawrence High, and Michael was the 1970 state champion on the horizontal bars. The brothers were also part of the school’s debate team. 

While visiting Lawrence High in May, John and Michael Spearman were guided on a tour by AP US history and African American history teacher Valerie Schrag and LHS Budget editor Tessa Collar. The group paid a visit to the former principal’s office where the sit-in occurred, taking a moment to commemorate what took place. This room is now drama teacher Craig Fisher’s classroom. 


After seeing the school, the brothers stayed for an interview with Collar and LHS Budget editor Cuyler Dunn. 

During the conversation, Michael and John Spearman talked at length about the sit-in, Lawrence at the time, and communication methods used to stage protests. They also gave advice to younger generations grappling with current rights issues. 

The Spearmans discussed what living in Lawrence was like at the time and the struggles their family dealt with. 

Black individuals were written out of laws and benefits created to benefit returning World War II veterans. This made things more difficult for many, according to John Spearman Jr. 

“When our family wanted to purchase a house, my father was a World War II person, but Black people were not allowed to use government funds to purchase houses,” John Spearman Jr. said. “It was explicitly written into the G.I. bill. So, it was a struggle. Houses helped develop wealth and push you into the middle class. My father was a janitor for a period of time at whatever chemical company was here and my mother worked for a small place called Precision Devices.” 

John Spearman Jr. discussed their parents’ fight for more opportunities in schools to get their children where they wanted to be.  

“They fought to get out of there and to give us the opportunity to go to schools,” John Spearman Jr. said. “When we went through Lawrence High, half the teachers we had knew our entire family. They knew my father; they knew my aunts and uncles. So, they knew what we were capable of, but we had to fight to get there.”

After graduating from Lawrence High, both Spearman brothers went on to have successful careers. 

John Spearman Jr. completed his degree at the University of Kansas, and went on to receive an MBA from Loyola University Maryland. He worked in hospital administration, at one point serving as the CEO of a hospital. 

John Spearman Jr. discussed the roots his work in healthcare had in his earlier work in Lawrence with the advancement of Black rights. 

“I will tell you that the lessons that I used to run my business, all came from the stuff that we did at Lawrence High School and KU,” John Spearman Jr. said. “If I’m getting ready to give you a difficult assignment, I would tell you: this is the kind of thing that you could expect. There’s going to be pain in this process because this is not just going to be easy.”

In discussing his leadership style, John Spearman Jr. emphasized being upfront with individuals about the work he asks individuals to do. 

“I want them to make the choice. You decide that you want to be part of this so that when the pain comes you just fight through it. I’m asking you, are you willing to make a commitment? And if you are, there’s nothing that we will not do together. Not ever asking you to do something that I wouldn’t do. I’m not going to ask you to put your life on the line if I don’t put my life on the line.

“They had to decide we are going to continue to do this. Those lessons have guided my entire life. I don’t care what endeavor I was doing.”

Michael Spearman attended Brown University for his undergraduate degree and New York University School of Law for graduate studies. 

Before going to graduate school, Michael Spearman worked as a union organizer in Texas as a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Once he began his career, he practiced criminal defense, personal injury law and family law before working as a judge, eventually becoming the acting chief judge of Division One of the Washington Court of Appeals. 

“When I did decide to go to law school, eventually when I graduated, I became a public defender and fought for the rights of my clients and sought to uphold the Constitution for a fairly marginalized group of folks,” Michael Spearman said. “And when I became a judge, still, you know, you fight to make changes in the judicial system to improve it for all people who are going to be served by the justice system.”

On the impact his parents’ leadership had on his life, Michael Spearman said, “I think it told us early on that if you think you see things that are not right you need to do something…I think it’s something that was instilled in us when we were young, our parents lived the example of it, and we could not help but do the same thing.”

During the May 2 interview, John Spearman Jr. discussed the strengths and drawbacks of being able to share videos, photos and information online and on social media, such as in the catalyst that was given from this type of connectivity in the George Floyd movement. He compared this to having to rely on trained individuals in movements he helped organize. 

“I mean, on the one hand, we really wish we had that kind of technology,” Spearman Jr. said. “Then, on the other hand, I think there was a tremendous strength in having individuals who were trained, not just responding because someone put the word out, but that you have individuals who are trained and dedicated to fight through every bit of that to get people. 

“So, [the movement] was more reliant on people, which is limiting because you only have so many of those, but it would be how you would combine the two of those things that makes the difference.”

Other students and teachers sat in on the May 2 discussion with the Spearmans. Sophomore Jean-Luc Esperance asked John and Michael for advice on how to find hope and optimism in the current political landscape.

Michael Spearman brought up the idea of looking to the past to find hope for current and future change. 

“I would just say…that’s one of the great things about history,” Michael Spearman said. “You can actually look back and see…where it started and how it developed and you can see where you are now. And it took lives, it took fighting, it took struggling, it took educating, it took learning, it took loving, to get from a period of slavery to where we are now.”

Michael Spearman said he had seen many positive societal changes over the years. He emphasized that becoming a judge was not something he thought possible for himself as a young person.  

“Because we still see so many things that need to be done, it’s easy to not appreciate how far we have come as a country, but we have made tremendous strides, even in my lifetime. I’ve talked about Lawrence when I grew up versus Lawrence now. The United States when I grew up, versus now. It is a different place. In fact, when I was born, the idea that I could become a judge, it wasn’t even on the table. There weren’t any Black judges. It just didn’t happen. 

“Just in my own lifetime, I’ve been able to take advantage of and appreciate the steps that we’ve made. That is going to continue. It will continue. And it’ll especially continue as long as people such as yourselves pick up the torch and lead to the light.” 

John Spearman Jr. voiced another view on the fight for current political issues, providing the idea that it’s crucial to get involved in issues that one finds important.

“I’m actually optimistic,” John Spearman Jr. said. “We’re going to take some setbacks, we’re taking setbacks right now. The voting rights stuff is a big part of it. These anti-abortion laws that are going through are a big part of that. I mean, you can just name thing after thing. You’re going to have setbacks; we’re going to get hurt.

“If you get into a boxing ring, you’re going to get hit. You have to choose to get into the boxing ring, all right? You have to choose to get into the fight.”