Grace Lee Boggs (l) and environmental justice activist Donele Wilkins at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, October 2012.
Grace Lee Boggs, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 100, was an extraordinary American heroine whose revolutionary legacy continues to inspire progressives across the world, far beyond her beloved Detroit.
Throughout her long life, she emphasized the importance of transforming oneself to become more humane while at the same time fighting to transform America’s top-down, profit-driven institutions into democratic structures that serve human needs.
A Chinese American with a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, she married African American auto worker and prolific writer James Boggs. Her fierce advocacy for Black Power in the cauldron of 1960s Detroit led to the FBI compiling an 884-page file on her decades of activism.
On his visits to Detroit, Malcolm X regularly stayed with the Boggs family, because they shared his commitment to combatting racism, the Vietnam War, and other imperial interventions.
By the end of her life, Grace Lee Boggs, once regularly excoriated in the Detroit papers and by public officials for her revolutionary ideas, commanded near-universal respect. Her unyielding advocacy for the downtrodden of Detroit and the world earned her the admiration of President Barack Obama, who saluted her after her passing saying, “the world needed changing, and she overcame barriers to do just that.”
While gaining a measure of respectability upon her death, “Grace Lee Boggs never, ever backed away from the idea of an American revolution,” stressed her long-time colleague Rich Feldman, a board member of the Boggs Center, which she founded to promote community-building and consciousness-raising.
“For her, revolution was more about creating power than taking power,” explained Feldman. “She saw people moving from being workers and consumers into becoming self-governing citizens.”
“Grace Lee Boggs never, ever backed away from the idea of an American revolution. For her, revolution was more about creating power than taking power. She saw people moving from being workers and consumers into becoming self-governing citizens.”
Always striving to encourage a broad and “beloved community,” she ignited a spark among countless people seeking new, democratic, and non-materialistic institutions and ways of living.
Grace Lee Boggs mobilized ordinary citizens—often those written off as the dregs of a devastated, supposedly doomed city. For the forgotten and frustrated young people of Detroit, she created an annual “Detroit Summer,” promoting mural-painting, dance, music, rebuilding homes, urban gardening and other activities. She also helped initiate an innovative charter high school.
These efforts exemplified her concept of building a new society on the ruins of a once-great city abandoned by the auto industry when it left to seek low-wage workers in Mexico and China.
Boggs denounced the top-down imposition of “fiscal martial law” on Detroit by Republican Governor Richard Snyder’s hand picked appointee who jettisoned democratic rule for the city and its school system. Boggs battled against the wounds inflicted on Detroit’s most vulnerable residents, like the massive shutoffs of water to homeowners (while businesses continued to get water even when they fell behind on their bills) and widespread foreclosures driven by a merciless banking system.
The indomitable Grace Lee Boggs’s legend grew over time. She was precise and powerful in her 2007 interview with Bill Moyers, and in Grace Lee’s (no relation) stunning documentary called “American Revolutionary: Grace Lee Boggs.” She illuminated the link between revolutionary politics and spirituality in her interview with Krista Tippet on National Public Radio.
Grace Lee, like her husband, was an influential author. Together, they wrote the provocative Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century in 1974. After her husband’s death in 1993, she wrote Living for Change: An Autobiography (1998) and The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century in 2011, with Scott Kurashige.
But even with all the acclaim, Grace Lee Boggs remained focused on providing hope to young people living on Detroit’s mean streets. “Her greatest honor was speaking at the graduation of the Freedom Growers, a group of young people, working on an urban farm,” Rich Feldman fondly remembered. “She’d spoken at graduations at the University of Michigan and other prestigious places, but giving the graduation speech to these young people really made her smile.”