Civil Rights Author Discusses His Past and the Future of Racial Justice Activism

Michael K. Honey. Photo courtesy of University of Washington TacomaMichael K. Honey. Photo courtesy of University of Washington Tacoma
The Harvard Crimson
October 29, 2020
By Felicia He and Tracy Jiang

University of Washington-Tacoma Professor Michael K. Honey spoke on the intersection of civil rights and labor and recounted his participation in civil rights activism, as part of a speaker series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Wednesday.

Honey is an activist, educator, and author of multiple oral histories and books, including an upcoming one — entitled “They Never Can Jail Us All: Repression, Resistance, and the Freedom Struggle, a Memoir and History (1960–1976)." Wednesday’s event centered around the book.

Guided by his own participation in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Honey said his desire to better understand history drove him to write his book, which addresses the issues of how racism and war have shaped his life, ideas, and personality.

He explained that the title of his book is inspired by a line from the civil rights song “Governor Wallace” that was aimed against Alabama Governor George C. Wallace and his attempt to enforce segregation at the University of Alabama in June 1963.

“I want to remember how history felt, as well as what happened,” he said. “I feel the urgent need to reconsider history in this more personal way.”

Honey walked the audience through his coming-of-age story, and described how his family became “increasingly radicalized” in the 1960s and was heavily involved with activism and the “Black freedom movement.” During that time, he collaborated with prominent musicians — such as Pete Seeger and Bettie Mae Fikes — and incorporated music into his activism.

“If you read and watched the news constantly, as I did, the freedom movement and the war were pervasive,” Honey said. “I adopted an anti-racism and peace agenda in a personal way through the power of music.”

During his time as a student journalist at Oakland University in the 1960s, Honey became part of the Students for a Democratic Society, a national student activist organization that advocated for socialist reform. His radicalism caught the attention of the FBI, he said, and would eventually classify him as a national security threat.

“The FBI stowed a file on me in my sophomore year,” he said. “That FBI file followed me around for many years.”

Honey also recounted his years after college, when he worked closely with civil rights leaders — such as Angela Davis — in Louisville and Memphis. He argued that the problems that existed 50 years ago are still pertinent today, and that events such as the defense of the “Black Six” — a group wrongly accused of instigating a riot by Kentucky authorities — parallel issues seen today.

“Their case was like today's efforts by the White House and Justice Department to blame Black Lives Matter for police and vigilante violence,” Honey said.

Honey also cited what he said are the long-reaching effects of failed reform by discussing how he campaigned in the 1970s to block no-knock warrants, as part of broader efforts against Nixon’s “War on Crime” agenda.

“This egregious no-knock was survived at the local level, and now we see awful results,” he said. “With the recent murder of Breonna Taylor, we see that police violence still remains commonplace in Louisville.”

Honey added that activism requires long-term commitment, not just temporary protest.

“Protests come and go,” he said.“Organization is required to really win some battles.”

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2020