American activist Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015) worked as an organizer for tenants' and workers' rights and authored books and articles on social justice and political philosophy. A resident of Detroit, Michigan, beginning in the 1950s, she became a fierce critic of the social and economic conditions that contributed to that city's economic decline.
Grace Lee Boggs was born Grace Lee on June 27, 1915, in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of Chinese immigrants Chin Lee and Yin Lan Lee. Chin Lee owned a Chinese restaurant in Providence, and Boggs was born above the restaurant, in an apartment where the family lived. Her father eventually opened a Chinese restaurant, Chin Lee's, on Broadway in Manhattan, and the family moved to the New York City borough of Queens when Boggs was eight years old.
A bright scholar, Boggs was only 16 when she enrolled at Barnard College, where she majored in philosophy and graduated in 1935. She went on to Bryn Mawr College, where she received a doctorate in 1940. Inspired by the work of German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, she resolved to dedicate herself to fighting inequality and discrimination against women and racial minorities. “Hegel helped me to see my own struggle for meaning as part of the continuing struggle of the individual to become part of a universal struggle for Freedom,” Boggs later wrote in her autobiography Living for Change. “I began to view my unease and restlessness not as a weakness but as a strength, a sign that I was ready to move to a new and higher stage of being.”
In 1942, Boggs began collaborating with the West Indian activist and Marxist C.L.R. James, whom she would work with for 20 years. Meanwhile, she wrote her first book, published in 1945, about the American social psychologist Herbert Mead. She also translated three essays by Karl Marx, the founder of Communism, from German to English. Living in New York City for several years, she cycled through various socialist parties and movements, often engaging in socialist intellectual debates about the Soviet Union.
In June of 1953, Boggs moved to Detroit, Michigan, taking on the editorship of Correspondence, a radical newsletter. There she met James Boggs, a black auto worker and fellow radical activist and writer. “When he rose to speak his mind, he would speak with such passion, challenging all within hearing to stretch their humanity, that he would often bring down the house,” she later recalled in Living for Change. The couple married that same year.
Influenced by her husband, Boggs focused less on philosophy and more on activism, and soon the couple became two of Detroit's most prominent activists. She also broke with C.L.R. James because of her husband's questioning of Marxist doctrine. Although they took up worker's rights, feminism, and environmental causes, the Boggses became especially known for their civil-rights activism on behalf of black Detroiters. “The two of them were major intellectuals that literally helped shape a generation of progressive leadership in the city of Detroit,” explained Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit City Council member, as quoted by Nancy Kaffer for the Detroit Free Press.
Boggs and her husband embraced the Black Power movement of the 1960s and often hosted activist Malcolm X when he visited Detroit. They also helped to organize Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 protest in the Motor City. During this time, Boggs became so identified with African American activism that many people mistook her heritage. That included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which investigated the couple's political activity and mistakenly described her in a file as “probably Afro Chinese,” according to Kat Chow of National Public Radio online. When violent civil unrest broke out in Detroit in 1967, leaving 43 dead, Boggs did not refer to the violence as riots, like most did, but as a rebellion against unemployment and police brutality. “What we tried to do is explain that a rebellion is righteous, because it's the protest of a people against injustice,” she told television host Bill Moyers, as quoted by Robert D. McFadden in the New York Times.
The violence that scarred Detroit in 1967 changed the city for the worse, provoking more “white flight” to the suburbs and permanently wounding black neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the auto industry, which, along with World War II, had fueled much of the city's growth, fell into decline, and the local economy reeled. Boggs “saw Detroit go from one of the greatest centers of wealth in the world to an international symbol of devastation and abandonment,” friend Scott Kurashige told Steve Chawkins of the Los Angeles Times. “It was a lack of wealth, a lack of jobs in Detroit that Grace saw as … a challenge and an opportunity to reimagine what social justice would need to look like.”
After years focusing on black politics, in the late 1970s the Boggses created the National Organization for an American Revolution, a multiracial organization with about eight chapters around the country. The group, which lasted into the mid-1980s, criticized capitalism and multinational corporations and favored local, decentralized economies and strong communities. Boggs and her husband resisted Detroit's decline by shifting their focus to building new connections in the city's neighborhoods. They helped start food cooperatives and community groups that fought utility shutoffs, tried to mobilize the unemployed, and organized protests outside crack houses as the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s swept through Detroit. They criticized Coleman Young, the first black mayor of Detroit, for demolishing the city's Poletown neighborhood to make way for a new General Motors car plant, and they took part in successful campaigns to stop Young's plans to bring casino gambling to Detroit, thereby stalling the arrival of casinos in the city for a decade. They also fought a move to demolish the city-owned Ford Auditorium, which survived another 20 years before being razed in 2011.
In 1986, the Boggses joined Save Our Sons and Daughters, an organization condemning youth violence that was led by activist Clementine Barfield. Perhaps the best example of Boggs's work with her husband is Detroit Summer, a nonprofit the couple founded in 1992, together with Barfield and others, to get local youth involved in the community by planting gardens, painting murals, fixing up houses, and organizing music festivals. “Detroit Summer is an example of the self-transforming [and] structuretransforming actions that Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last year of his life projects for young people in ‘our dying cities,’” she later wrote in Living for Change.
Over time, Boggs came to embrace King's nonviolent tactics and philosophy. She also developed her own argument for social change based on community organizing and moral and spiritual values. While she still talked about revolution, as she had as a young socialist, the word came to mean something different to her. “We have not emphasized sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves in order to force the government to do differently,” she told Moyers (as quoted in the New York Times).
Boggs also began a new round of thinking about her identity as an Asian American. She favored organizing multiracial coalitions rather than the biracial, black-andwhite politics common in Detroit and other Midwestern cities. “Black/white meetings carry the tremendous historical burden of past oppression and struggles against oppression and all the political tendencies that have emerged in the course of those struggles,” she observed in her autobiography. “By contrast, in meetings where African Americans are one people of color among others, there is the sense of the unknown and of a future still to be created.”
Boggs founded the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership as a way of advancing her ideas and developing community leaders. In 2005, the year she turned 90, she began writing an opinion column for the Michigan Citizen, a weekly black newspaper. In 2011, she wrote her last book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. In it, she defined revolution as part of a tradition of dissent and activism that included Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Reverend King. She also wrote that her idea of revolution had evolved from a tough, confrontational approach to a compassionate humanitarianism influenced by the women's and environmental movements. Progressives have “overestimated the role of activism and underestimated the role of reflection,” she asserted, according to Kaffer in the Detroit Free Press.
Boggs's belief in what she called “visionary organizing” led her to focus on grassroots networks and distrust government solutions. That sometimes led her to unusual stances, such as her disapproval of activist demands for jobs programs to fight poverty. She “increasingly believed that a radical shift in people's values and consciousness was a necessary precondition to any successful revolutionary movement,” wrote Aaron Petkov in the socialist journal Jacobin. “If there was any weakness in Boggs's vision, it was her belief that people's consciousness could transform itself, independent of mass collective action such as protests or strikes.”
In 2013, Boggs founded the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter school that includes Detroit and its environs. She was also the subject of a PBS documentary, American Revolutionary. “Grace Lee Boggs doesn't just explode the docile-Asian-female stereotypes,” wrote Justin Chang of Variety in his review of this film. “She makes an inspiring case for self-determination and intellectual fortitude, regardless of background.” In the film, Boggs lived up to its title by talking about the evolving meaning of one of her favorite ideas. “I don't know what the next American revolution is going to be like,” she said (as quoted by Chow), “but we might be able to imagine it if your imagination were rich enough.”
Boggs died at her home in Detroit on October 5, 2015, at age 100. Among the many people who mourned her death was U.S. President Barack Obama. As quoted by Kim Bellware of the Huffington Post, his statement at her death read: “Grace dedicated her life to serving and advocating for the rights of others—from her community activism in Detroit, to her leadership in the civil rights movement, to her ideas that challenged us all to lead meaningful lives.”
Boggs, Grace Lee, Living for Change: An Autobiography, University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Detroit Free Press, October 5, 2015.
Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2015, Steve Chawkins, “Grace Lee Boggs.”
New York Times, October 6, 2015, Robert D. McFadden, “Grace Lee Boggs, Human Rights Advocate for 7 Decades.”
Variety, June 24, 2013, Justin Chang, review of American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.
Washington Post, October 6, 2015, Julia Carpenter, “Grace Lee Boggs.”
Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ (October 6, 2015), “Grace Lee Boggs, Legendary Activist.”
National Public Radio website, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/ (June 27, 2015), Kat Chow,“Grace Lee Boggs, Activist and American Revolutionary, Turns 100.”
Jacobin online, https://www.jacobinmag.com/ (October 16, 2015), Aaron Petkov, “Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015).”❑