An interview with 1970’s LHS protest leaders

A full transcription of an interview between John and Michael Spearman, and two of The Budget’s editors.


Owen Musser

In the blackbox theatre, LHS students sit and listen to a discussion with the Spearman brothers.

By Cuyler Dunn, Co-Editor in Chief of The Budget

As a part of our staff’s Hall of Honor Diversity Project, two influential LHS alumni, John and Michael Spearman, sat down and talked with editors Tessa Collar and Cuyler Dunn.

The brother’s father was one of our nominations for the Hall of Honor in our Uncovering Lion Legacies story.

Here is a transcript of the interview edited for length and clarity:

Tessa Collar: Can you guys talk a little bit about what it was like living in Lawrence in the time you did, leading up to the sit-ins?

Michael Spearman: Well, I was born in 1952, sort of centuries ago, but it was a different time in Lawrence in many ways. We were just emerging from a period of segregation, my parents, although they went to an integrated high school, activities, such as any sports activities that required contact, were still separated by race.

My father wanted to play on the Lawrence High basketball team. The coach told him, “We have a gentlemen’s agreement amongst the coaches in the Sunflower League that no Black players will play.” And my father said, “well you’re some damn poor gentleman” and he was probably suspended from school.

My mother also experienced issues with teachers who openly stated to her that there was no way that she could achieve an A in class because Black people were only capable of doing B work, and yet she taught at Lawrence High School for decades. The movie theaters had only recently desegregated and Black people could only sit in balconies of the theaters.

So, it was a time when a lot of growing had to be done in Lawrence. For Black folks, coming up it was fairly residentially segregated. We lived in East Lawrence, which was a largely Black community at that point in time.

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. 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. They fought to get out of there and to give us the opportunity to go to schools. 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.

Michael Spearman: Just one other thing about that time, the issue of race and segregation really came to a head about a swimming pool.

There were swimming pools in Lawrence, and it was a public swimming pool, but when the issue of whether it was going to be integrated or not, it was converted to a private club. So, African Americans could not be part of the club and could not swim in the pool. And I remember, as a young child being brought with my mom and dad and John, we were out protesting with protest signs demanding that the pool be integrated.

And I think, at least three or four times there was a bond issue put before Lawrence voters about funding for a public pool and it always got caught up in basically, “it’s an integrated pool, where white people and Black people are going to swim together,” and “no, we don’t want that.” So, it was voted down several times and I think it was finally improved in maybe 1971 or 1972.

John Spearman Jr.: Part of this is not just Lawrence High, you know, some of the strongest memories I have are about my mother and father on the phone calling to find places for Black students going to KU to stay because they could not stay in the dorms.

And so, if you were a Black student coming to KU, you lived in a private home with another Black family. Even though they had people like Wilt Chamberlain, who lived four houses down from us. In fact, we used to go down and steal his shoes off the back porch. I’ll tell you; I did run into him at Madison Square Garden and we both used to live on Mississippi St. I yelled out our address. And so, he stopped and came over and I said, “We used to steal your shoes off of your back porch” and he said, “I used to put them out there for you.”

So even though there were Black athletes, it was not easy on any level. In fact, I came to Lawrence 20 or 30 years ago, and I went to get a haircut and I asked the barber. I said, “do you cut Black hair?” And he looked at me and he was like, “what? we cut all hair.” And I realized I hadn’t made the transition from the time when you only went to the Black barbers because white barbers would not cut your hair. So, it was that kind of environment that led to Michael, and he organized that whole group of people.

There’d been protests before and demands and so forth. But we hadn’t gotten anywhere. It was Michael and his class that stepped it up a notch.

Michael Spearman: There had been negotiations and talks about hiring more Black teachers and doing something about African American history, doing something about the royalty set up with the prom queen and king, it was only white people who participated in it, no Black folks participated in that.

So, there’ve been talks going on for two or three years when John was here, and he graduated 1968, they had discussions when I was here, we had discussions my senior year in 1970, it felt like the discussions were going nowhere and that the only way to accomplish something was to really protest in a way that would make people listen. And so, we got about 20 to 25 of us African-America high school students and we went to the principal’s office and asked that he speak with us, and he declined.

“Well,” we said, “we’re not leaving until you do.” And thus began the sit-in and calls for the police. The principal called the police, I called my brother.

John Spearman Jr.: I was in the Black Student Union at KU. And so, he called, and I said, “okay, I’ll be right down” and when I got there, they had already taken it over and we talked for a little bit. And then I called my father, and I said, “Dad, Michael has taken over the principal’s office and I’m down here and I’m going to bring some KU students down here, and we need you to come.” He worked at Hallmark cards at the time, and he said, “I’ll be right there.”

He came and then they organized a group called the Lawrence Branch of Concerned Black Parents, and they called all around and they gathered the parents in the park across the street, and they plotted our strategy, how we’re going to support these students. I called some students from the Black Student Union at KU who came down, and we just kind of had to say, “Okay, Michael and them are in there. What are we going to do?”

And it eventually was negotiated that we would leave but that negotiations, especially with the parents and the school board and the principal, would continue. The parents, of course, were working with us as well.

Cuyler Dunn: Leading up to this project we’ve been working on, a lot of our thoughts had to do with how LHS has, for a long time, been very tied to the Lawrence community. Action taken at the high school, within these walls, can spill out to the entire city. So, I’m curious, you two growing up as members of the LHS and Lawrence communities, how have you seen those two be intertwined?

John Spearman Jr.: So, you know, Michael described this pretty well, I mean, Black students, we were in an integrated school, and he had friends who were white and a couple of Chicano students here and there. But there was basically no social integration. You know, the Black community was the Black community, and we did what we did. At our parent’s level, there were lots of efforts to try to deal with that. For instance, our father was running for the school board when Michael and them chose to take over the principal’s office.

And yet he came out and said, “We’re going to back you.” They organized, the concerned Black parents, those parents did negotiate for us at all kinds of levels including talking to Doll Simons down at the Lawrence Journal-World and whoever ran the radio stations. But there was a resistance all the way through and finally our parents came back to us over in that park and said, “They’re not going anywhere, do what you need to do.”

And so that’s when we organized and said, “We’re storming the doors.” That’s when they brought out the police and set up the police line and they beat people and tear gassed people, all that kind of thing.

People love Lawrence High for the sports and the education. It was a good education; I still talk about it now. People are sending their kids to private schools. I said, “I did not go to a private school, but we got an education that equals all of that.” So, I think you’re very lucky to be able to do that.

Michael Spearman: There was a lot of similarities between the high school population and the city population. I mean in the same way Lawrence was, at that time, integrated, the high school was also integrated. But the Black community was very insular and there were so many things that we did within the Black community that the white community didn’t share, and we’re probably not even aware of. Whereas with the white community, we were always aware of what they were doing but we didn’t participate in it. I think it was similar in high school

John Spearman Sr.: You spoke the languages. The language at home, and the language in the larger society. 

Michael Spearman: Because, I think, those two things were sort of symbiotic and related to each other, if you’re going to change things and in the high school level, it was going to affect how the white and Black community related with each other outside of the high school.

And vice versa. I think both of those things were true, but I think pushing that issue within the high school, it automatically became an issue for the broader day today and the entire community.

John Spearman Jr.: And 1970, that was the year of the protests at KU on a lot of issues. The war, racism, the connection with the high school, that’s when they killed [students] at KU, an anti-war protester.

The time we’re talking about, even though we’re talking about the high school, all of Lawrence was [tumultuous], and then when you get to the summer of 1970 is when it became an armed protest. And again, there was an alliance between the Black community and the Black students on KU but also with other groups protesting the war and so forth. All interconnected during that time, and we would talk with each other, we would negotiate strategies with each other and then we would move. And when we were fighting in the Black communities, sometimes some of the groups would strategically do something and get the police called to go to the other side of town, you know to give us some relief.

So even though we’re talking about Michael and them doing the high school, this was a period of tremendous turmoil, political thought, action in the streets, protests and so forth. But it was for the whole United States at that time. When they killed eight Black students in Louisiana, and when they killed the four or five students at Jackson State. It’s a time that really has not been duplicated. And I do know friends who said, “I hated that period” and I loved that period. Not because all the people are getting killed but because people were fighting to reorient society so that everybody could be free.

That was the fight that was taking place.

There was resistance, they didn’t want it, and so you ask, you ask, you ask and then you have to say we’re putting our foot down and drawing a line and we’re not taking it anymore and when that happens, there’s resistance and you just deal with it.

Those times are coming again by the way. Right now. They’ll look different. When we were doing this thing, we had mimeograph machines to revolve out leaflets. We could not call a protest with our phones and get a hundred people there.

We had people going out and organizing everywhere.

Michael Spearman: The closest thing you can see to it now, I think, is the George Floyd protest. It gave us a vibrant and important issue for the Black community. But a lot of white people also saw it as an important issue and an issue that they needed to take up and it wasn’t just a Black struggle, it was a struggle for, first human rights, not just rights for Blacks.

But just like how after 1968 and 1970 there was pushback, there’s push back against that united protest. That’s why I think now, you see all the anti-critical race theory legislation which is a reaction to a united front of Black folks, and white folks, and Native American folks, and Asian folks against an injustice. The anti-critical race theory people want to shatter that coalition.

John Spearman Jr.: That’s an overlooked thing too, because while we’re talking about Black and white, at that same time in Lawrence you know there was a Chicano movement, Native Americans and others who worked trying to organize, they just didn’t have the numbers and secondly, they did not have the visibility and support. So, it kind of gets overshadowed. That was as much a part of that whole time and what we were all fighting for.

Tessa Collar: You’ve talked a little bit about how you had to get the word out and how that was a different process, obviously, than it would be now. Can you talk a little bit more about what the process was for communicating and getting the word out about the protests and just communicating, at the time, about that?

John Spearman Jr.: Yeah, so you actually had to organize people. So, we would sit down and map out what our strategy was going to be, what we had to push, what the demands are, what we expect from them, how we expected them to push back and then how we were going to neutralize that. So, you know, we would actually train individuals to be organizers and send them all over.

We sent them throughout Kansas, and into Nebraska and Colorado and all that. We’d send them through the dorms. Your job is to get the word out on this on these dorms. This is what we’re trying to say. Identify the people who are emerging leaders, you know, talk to them. I don’t care if you get 10 people, we want 100, but if you bring five, we take five. And then we work with those five people, those five people go out and do that. And then of course I mean we stayed up night after tonight just mimeographing leaflets.

Michael Spearman: It was all paper. No internet, no texting, no ability to communicate instantaneously, no camera phones that you make good movies with and share with people that you’re trying to communicate with.

I think part of your question was looking at a distinction between where we are today and what it was then and, you know, if I was in that position doing that now, I’m not fast enough with the modern technology to really take advantage of it. But it would be a totally different exercise and you could probably reach a whole lot more people a whole lot quicker.

Cuyler Dunn: I know you were relating to that George Floyd movement, and I think that’s one thing that was really interesting about that movement comparatively: the virality of it. There were videos all over social media and that was one of the big drivers of it was that new age of technology and information and the way that that allowed that information to spread. And I think that there’s value in maybe drawback in the way that that information spreads.

John Spearman Jr.: I think there are both, I mean, on the one hand, we really wish we had that kind of technology. 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, it 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.

And I know there’s also difference now, there’s more of a leaderless aesthetic in how you organize movements now, and I think that has some benefits and drawbacks. Some benefits are they can’t target you like they targeted Dr. King, you know, and me at one point.

But at the same time if that leader is able to show, to live the reality of what they’re preaching. Then that is powerful in the self, and it draws people together. So, it’s not a disembodied idea. You see people who are living the roles that they’re talking about living the values they talk about.

So, I think for your generation, figuring out how to fight for the values, and pushing society forward, it’s going to be how you combine those two.

Cuyler Dunn: I think one thing that’s interesting kind of based on what you just said is that pushback and the way that that can affect a movement. I’m kind of curious, how do you see how that’s different now, compared to how it was back in the 50s, 60s and 70s and how do you see that pushback look different?

Michael Spearman: Well, I think part of it is the pushback then was naked. It was really sort of brute force. Yeah, taking a sledgehammer kind of things. This is like the FBI and the Counter Intelligence process of disinformation and attacking, the FBI attacking the Black Panther’s office, seeding informants.

John Spearman Jr.: They seeded informants inside the Black Student Union, including the one at KU. And it went beyond that.

So, for instance, my mother called me one night scared to death. She said I just got a message from some fraternity that they’re going to kidnap you. I said, “don’t worry about it” because we had our own protection and whatever. But it’s that kind of blatant act. Now, that still goes on today, but there is also much more sophisticated use of the media. It’s not just people who are fighting who can use social media to influence broad numbers of people as you can well se with the situation we’re in right now.

So, I think probably the main thing that distinguished it was that it was a lot more naked force. Now naked force comes from police, but it was ordinary citizens.

Cuyler Dunn: I feel like that can kind of change the response, you talked about Critical Race Theory legislation and that kind of stuff, that’s less visibly abhorrent than violence but it is still very damaging. That can lead to less reaction because it’s just less physically difficult, but it needs just as much of a reaction.

Michael Spearman: And it can appear to be coming from people who are your friends. Whether it is or isn’t, but it appears to be coming from people that you know or are associated with. It comes to you in your phone from some social network that you’re attached to and so it’s much more insidious is that way.

It’s not like J. Edgar Hoover saying, “Blah, blah blah” because to me, if it’s coming from J. Edgar Hoover, I know I’m not going to pay any attention, I admit it. Instead, it comes from some bot somewhere that’s gotten into my social network, and it looks like something that came to me personally.

Tessa Collar: I’m kind of curious how you guys think attending the protests with your parents when you were young impacted you both. Being involved in the Black Student Union, and then leading the protests at Lawrence High, and then also your later life and career, how do you think your parents views impacted your life?

Michael Spearman: I think it told us early on that if you think see things that are not right you need to do something.

Our parents we’re doing that and they didn’t mind bringing their, you know, five and six year old kids out with them to participate in that and my father and my mother both lived that, even after growing up our entire lives here, they lived that every day of their lives and were constantly trying to make Lawrence a better place for them, for us and for the city as a as a whole.

That’s why my father ran for the school board in 1971. He thought he could bring something that could make a change to Lawrence High and the brother community. And he was the first African American ever to run for that position. So, he was sticking his head up and even though there were likely to be some consequences both in his job and on us, who were still in school here, he did it anyway because it was important. I think for all of us, we sort of continued that thought. For example, after I finished school, I went to Texas and worked instead of going to professional school immediately. I worked as a union, organizer down in Houston Texas. I was a machinist member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and ran machines and ran the ford shop and made steel and organized workers.

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. And when I became a judge, still, you know, you fight to make changes in the judicial to improve it for all people who are going to be served by the justice system.

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.

John Spearman Jr.: As did our grandmother. She fought for education for black children back in the late 40s and early 50s. So, it was kind of in our DNA that if you see something, you have to say something and as far as that impacting my life: I became a hospital administrator including the CEO of the hospital. I did a lot of work in developing countries, helping to build health systems, including South Africa, China, India, other places.

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. How it is that you identify where the issues are, how it is that you organize your team, whether that team has a thousand people in it, or it’s got five, how you organize them so that, one, they believe where you’re trying to go, and they want to be on it.

If I’m giving ready to give you a difficult assignment, I would tell you: this is a kind of things that you could expect. There’s going to be pain in this process because this is not just going to be easy.

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.

As weird as that may seem for a hospital, when coronavirus strikes, and other things SARS and so forth, they scared the nurses and doctors. 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.

Tessa Collar: Were teachers and faculty supportive at all, what was that like?

Michael Spearman: I do remember that there were teachers that were very supportive and there were teachers who were not supporting.

I don’t know if anti is the right word. There were two things going on.

One is there were some who just thought the process was wrong. They thought it was you shouldn’t engage in protest. You should just sit down and talk. But to me it was like, “well you’re ignoring the fact we have been sitting down and talking to people and we haven’t gotten any response for four years.” So, this is why we here.

Other people were more, “Black people should stay in their place.” More of a racist tinge to it which was very uncomfortable. I did not have good relations with those professors.

John Spearman Jr.: I think this is one of those times when you have to decide where you stand and what you’re willing to take in order to move it forward. Part of my optimism comes from the fact that nothing is a straight line in history. There’s always pushback. There are always people that want to go back 15 decades to where things were.

I’m actually optimistic, we’re going to take some setbacks, we’re taking set back 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. So, those are setbacks we’re dealing with. 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.

We need to make use of our diverse skills. There are some people who won’t fight like that, but they know how to negotiate the differences between the various groups that should be aligned. We need diplomats, you know, people who can who know how to talk a language that allows different groups who need to be together, because they’re real interests are the same, to find a way to get together.

I think we have a much broader array of that, kind of talent. I think people in your generation have a lot more that than we did and I think you have a much broader perspective than we did. So, I’m actually very optimistic. It doesn’t mean this is not going to be rough for the next 5, 10, 20 years, you know, it is going to be rough. But I think those interests are a minority and that’s part of why they’re fighting so hard, they’re scared to death.

If we don’t fight, we get nothing. If we don’t fight, we make no contribution. Some of us died but others, the vast majority of us, are still here. And so now we can speak from a historical perspective that your day will come. I mean, your day is here now. There will be that day when you can look back and say, “This is a contribution that I made.”