Product of the ‘60s, professor’s life one of activism, history and music

By Larry Larue, Tacoma Weekly, Thursday, 22 September 2016

It’s no coincidence that a CNN documentary series on the decades of the American 20th century drew its highest ratings when dealing with the 1960s and 1970s.
Michael Honey remembers them – they shaped his life.
“It was an amazing time in this country – you had the fight for civil rights, black power, feminism, Vietnam,” Honey said. “I was arrested in a Louisville, Ky. at a civil rights protest. That’s when they started my FBI file.”

Honey was a 22-year-old Michigan student, the son of a Navy Air Force veteran, when he filed with the draft as a conscientious objector in 1969. He was assigned alternative public service, and went to Louisville to work for civil rights.
He has been an anti-war activist since, and worked seven years in the South for civil rights. Along the way, he became a writer, then a scholar and an educator.
Since 1990, the year the University of Washington-Tacoma opened, Honey has been a professor there. And not just any professor. As the new campus came together, programs and courses were designed on the fly. A history teacher, Honey stayed with his strengths.
“Our first semester, I think we had 150 students,” Honey said. “Today, it’s 5,000. I was given the opportunity to help shape the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program and its Ethnic, Gender and Labor studies major. It was a great adventure, starting a new campus.”
Since then, he’s not only taught history – including black history and American labor history – he has written four books and edited a fifth.
“When I was younger, I didn’t just want to challenge things. I wanted to understand them,” Honey said. “I got hooked on research and started writing books.
“I wrote about labor practices in the deep South, but my research took me to oral histories. Almost nothing was written about the subject, so I got names. People would say, ‘You’ve got to talk to this fellow,’ and I’d track them down and we’d talk. Some interviews would last a couple of hours. Some would last a couple of days.”
Honey’s works include oral histories from an era that might have been forgotten without them. His latest, on civil rights-union activist John Handcox, was a labor of love for several reasons. First, it dealt with a man and topic Honey identified with – one man trying to help black and white farmers improve their lives.
Second, there was the music.
Handcox was a troubadour, and his songs carried his message to union meetings and church services, anywhere he might spread the word. As he had been doing for decades, Honey collected that music – and sang it.
“Music has always been part of the history of labor and civil rights, and I brought that music to my classes when I thought it helped,” Honey said. “In 1996, I sang with Pete Seeger in Seattle. I sing in class, I’ve sung at programs for each of my books. I sang before I taught, so it was natural to bring it in.”
When Honey travels for lectures, he takes his guitar. The songs he sings help bring the topics he talks about to life. He sings on campus and at home, to wife Pat – who teaches in the music program at the University of Puget Sound.
Truth be told, Pat Krueger was a major influence in getting Honey to stay in Tacoma.
“In 1988, I got a one-year contract to teach history at UPS, and in that year I met Pat,” Honey said. A year later, he was teaching in California – but in 1990, when UWT opened, both he and the university were delighted to get together.
It has worked out well for both. Honey’s books have collected a library’s worth of awards, and he’s brought a half-dozen research grants home to UWT.
“I’ve had offers to work at other universities for more money, but the opportunity here has always been unique. I love the diversity here,” Honey said. “I was given the chance to create an African-American history program here. I was able to teach courses that were my strongest.
”One of the things our students started at UWT was a Tacoma oral history project. People can access the collections online, by year, by topics.”