UW News

March 4, 2010

A life in the midst of the civil rights movement inspires research, brings award for Honey

As a high school student in the 1960s, Michael Honey got behind the burgeoning civil rights movement. In college during the Vietnam War, he followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice and filed for the draft as a conscientious objector.

Michael Honey

Michael Honey

When King began his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Honey joined it. He was a civil rights and community organizer in the South during the ’70s. He was once arrested for protesting and spent three weeks in a county jail he described as “dreadful.” He helped organize a rally to protest false charges against black activist Angela Davis. His phone was wiretapped. The FBI amassed a thick file detailing his activities. He sang protest songs on stage with Pete Seeger.

It’s easy to see why Honey, UW Tacoma history professor, chose the civil rights movement and workers’ rights as his lifelong research topics.

“It has not been difficult for me to empathize with the people I write about in labor and civil rights history,” Honey said.

Honey has written three well-received, award-winning books and many articles on his subjects, and he’s in high demand as an expert on King. His presentations often involve film, historic photographs and music. Playing his guitar and singing labor and freedom movement songs, Honey uses his music as a teaching tool in presentations as well as the classroom.

In recognition of his exemplary research and contribution to the body of knowledge about the civil and workers’ rights movements, UW Tacoma named Honey the 2010 recipient of the Distinguished Research Award. And on Friday, March 5, he will do a presentation, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last Campaign and Unfinished Agenda in the Obama Era. It begins at 3 p.m. in room 309 of the Science Building at UWT.

In announcing the award, the selection committee praised Honey’s scholarship, his dedication to building relationships between campus and community, and the recognition and honor he has brought to UW Tacoma.

“Since his days as a community organizer in the South, he has been advocating for labor and civil rights as an organizer, speaker and scholar,” read the committee’s comments. “Dr. Honey has gained wide recognition for his paradigm-altering historical research, which is written in engaging, even gripping language.”

The books Honey has authored include Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (1993) and Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle (1999).

His most recent and highly acclaimed book is Going Down the Memphis Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (2007), which, the committee wrote, “gives new perspective to King’s work by chronicling his leadership in the months-long Memphis public sanitation workers’ strike in 1968 — the reason King came to Memphis for the fateful last days of his life.” The book received the 2007 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and won major national awards from the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association.

Among his many distinctions, Honey is the holder of the Fred T. and Dorothy G. Haley endowed Professorship in the Humanities. He met the late Fred Haley, of Brown and Haley fame, when Honey became one of UW Tacoma’s founding faculty members. Haley was an early and vocal supporter and organizer of the movement to create a university in Tacoma, and the two became close friends.

“Fred Haley was a humane and wonderful person who fought the ‘red scare.’ He was an employer who supported unions and a white guy who supported black freedom and civil rights,” Honey said. “Without him, maybe we wouldn’t have a campus in Tacoma. … I can’t tell you how proud I am to hold a professorship in the name of Fred and Dorothy Haley.”

Honey explained why it is important to study history. “We understand the past differently each generation, based on our own experiences and those of our parents. We hope that this makes us wiser and better students of history,” he said. “But there is always the problem that many people just don’t know the history to begin with, and so it is easy to sell them a bill of goods.

“Historians have this same problem,” he continued. “They start to think they know the truth, but sometimes they are drawing on the same biased sources and false truths that people struggled with in the past. …”

“Trying to understand history is always a struggle, and we should never take it for granted. We will always be visiting and revisiting it.”