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Q&A&L with Michael Honey

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Michael Honey, a professor of interdisciplinary arts and sciences at UW Tacoma and an affiliate of the UW’s Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, created a documentary film about civil rights activist Rev. James Lawson this year.

“Love and Solidarity: Rev. James Lawson and Nonviolence in the Search for Workers’ Rights” will be shown at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 28, in the Ethnic Cultural Center. Following the screening, there will be a panel discussion including professor Honey, assistant professor of political science Megan Ming Francis, Black Lives Matter activist Michael Moynihan, and immigrant rights activist Diana Betancourt. The event is free and open to the public. It will also be screened on Oct. 29 at the Carwein Auditorium at UW Tacoma.

Honey has screened the film at campuses throughout the country since it was first released in Tacoma in February, and I spoke with him about his experience producing the film.

Q: What is “Love and Solidarity” about?

A: The film is about the relationship between labor and civil rights, and issues of economic inequality and police brutality, and a lot of the issues we’re dealing with today. But [it’s] seen in a historical perspective and looked at through the lens of James Lawson, who was a leader in helping organize nonviolent direct action during the civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s. He went on to be a minister in Los Angeles, and he’s been helping to develop immigrant rights and labor rights organizing for the last 20 years in Los Angeles.


Q: What made you interested in the life of Rev. James Lawson in particular? 

A: I’ve known him for a long time … I used to be a civil rights organizer myself, not in his generation but a little later, in the 1970s. In Memphis, he was very well-known because he had been a minister who led the community action around the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, in which Dr. King was killed. I wrote a book called “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign,” and he was one of the main people I interviewed for that book.

He’s one of the most important theorists and practitioners of nonviolence. King brought him into the movement knowing that Lawson had already gone to prison during the Korean War for refusing the draft and had studied Gandhi in India. He was a key person, sort of behind-the-scenes, helping develop leadership in the nonviolent movement in the South.


Q: Were there topics you discussed with Lawson that you think are relevant today?

A: Yes. What he talks about is relevant to the $15-an-hour minimum wage campaign; it’s relevant to the struggles against police brutality; it’s relevant to union organizing today, and the problems of immigrant students fighting today for citizenship rights. All those things get discussed in the film.

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The film is really designed to give people a historical perspective, but one that begs for discussion about what this has to do with today. I’ve shown the film on campuses across the country, and it always produces an interesting discussion. I showed it at University of Missouri in Columbia, and a lot of the students had been involved in the Ferguson protests, so we got into a long discussion about that. We want to have students there and faculty there to give their thoughts on how this history is relevant now.


Q: You’ve said that the film weaves together civil rights, immigration, and labor organizing. Why is it important for us to recognize that those three topics are interconnected?

A: There’s a tendency in this society to think about the civil rights movement as something that’s over, and not see that it’s part of a continuing struggle. There’s also a tendency to think that these are separate issues, but the way the film portrays it, and based on Lawson’s own experience, what you see is that these are three strands of issues that are very much connected. Furthermore, they’re connected to a lot of other issues, too. King used to say this, and Lawson says it: If you’re a nonviolence advocate, you see all of the issues from that framework, so racism, poverty, and war are all forms of violence. It’s a revolutionary agenda for radically changing the kind of society we’re living in now, through systemic, overall change in our system and in our morals.


Q: What are some lessons that you think students and other viewers can learn from the film?

A: Well, that’s what I want to find out. One of the reasons I’m taking the time to show the film on a lot of campuses is I want to know what students think about it. I’m not sure what they’ll take away from the film, but that’s why we have the discussion afterwards. I want them to react to it and respond to it based on how it appears to them. I’m from a different generation, and I’ve been studying it for a long time. I want to know what people, who are just trying to deal with issues today, learn from the film.


Q: Was there anything you learned that surprised you over the course of making the documentary?

A: I learned that it’s really hard to make a film. It’s got a lot of moving parts, and it really depends a lot on who you’re working with. I’ve done a lot of oral histories, I’ve written four books, and I also did a book of King’s speeches. Most of my research has used a lot of oral history. The film really is an oral history, so it depends a lot on what people have to say. Fortunately, we’ve got three main people in the film who have great things to say.


Reach Podcast Editor Katie Anastas at Twitter: @KatieAnastas

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