SJSU Remembers Civil Rights Icon, Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020)



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Photography by D. Michael Cheers

For a 2017 Alternative Spring Break trip to Harlem and Washington, D.C., Associate Professor of Journalism and Photojournalism Coordinator D. Michael Cheers created an unforgettable experience for his students. He arranged a meeting with Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020.

“I started planning the alternative spring break trip in November 2016,” said Cheers. “I wanted to provide a meaningful experience for our African American students. Once the logistics were worked out in early 2017, and the trip was a ‘go,’ I still felt something was missing.”

Cheers had secured complimentary tickets to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., but felt the students needed some context before the museum visit. Cheers knew Lewis through his many years as a photojournalist for Jet and Ebony magazines, so he contacted Lewis’s chief of staff in Washington.

Cheers was persistent, as members of Congress are always busy. A week before departing, he received word that the congressman would see the group, but only for a brief meet and greet. “I gambled that perhaps he would have more time,” said Cheers. “He did!”

Lewis talked to SJSU students in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C. for more than an hour about his work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

“Congressman Lewis mesmerized the students with his civil rights history lesson and a Q&A,” said Cheers. “And he brought tears to my eyes when he agreed to sign the many books the students had purchased and posed for photos.”

In 2018, Cheers and Sociology Lecturer Chris Cox led students and Bay Area community elders on an alternative spring break trip across the civil rights south to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The group visited many civil rights landmarks.

“In my 15 years on the SJSU faculty, I’ve tried my best to share the experiences I had covering the civil rights movement with SJSU students,” said Cheers. “In January 2009, I took a van load of journalism students through the civil rights movement south to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Of all the landmarks we visited in 2009 and in 2018, walking with our students across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site where Lewis was badly beaten on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, remains a precious and reflective memory for me and our students.”