Grace Lee Boggs, the mother of Detroit activism, passes away peacefully at 100

Activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs died peacefully in her sleep this morning at the age of 100. If you never had an opportunity to meet her personally, or hear her speak, I’d suggest making time this evening to watch the documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, which does a great job of following her evolution as an activist.

For those of you who don’t have the time to watch right now, here’s a bit of background on the film by way of PBS.

American Revolutionary shows that Boggs got in on the action — and the action got going — long before the turbulent 1960s. As she reminds a group of students, “I got my Ph.D. in 1940. Just imagine that.” Born in 1915 in Providence, R.I. to Chinese immigrants who moved to New York and prospered in the restaurant trade — Chin Lee’s opened in Manhattan in 1924 — she grew up relatively privileged and excelled at the nearly all-white Bryn Mawr and Barnard Colleges.

Then two things happened. First, she read the works of German philosopher Hegel, the founder of “dialectical thinking” whose work influenced Marxism, which steered her into philosophy and a more critical stance toward society. Then, after finishing school with doctorate in hand, she found herself blocked by “We don’t hire Orientals” signs. So she took a train to Chicago, where she found a job at the University of Chicago’s philosophy library and an apartment on the South Side and began organizing her new neighborhood against rat-infested housing.

The rest is a people’s history of the American left. American Revolutionary deftly follows Boggs’ path from her first community campaign — as a tenants’ rights organizer — through the 1941 March on Washington movement, which demanded jobs for African Americans in defense plants; her mentorship under the West Indian Marxist writer and theorist C.L.R. James; her move to Detroit; her 1953 marriage to Alabama-born James Boggs (auto worker and author of The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook); her split with orthodox Marxism in favor of Black revolution; her preference for the ideas of Malcolm X over those of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and her emergence as a spokesperson for Black Power.

Along the way, she studied, wrote influential books, engaged in protest and, together with her husband (who died in 1993), discovered increasing tolerance for what they saw as revolutionary violence in the face of violent repression. Then Detroit exploded in the 1967 riots, which, as American Revolutionary reveals, were watershed events for Boggs. Indeed, she instructed PBS’s Bill Moyers to call them “a rebellion.” After a short period of community solidarity, disorder and lawlessness took over the streets. Rebellion did not become revolution. Boggs and her husband began to reexamine their ideas in the light of experience. Though there are many who would argue with her, and she’d be ready for the argument, Boggs has maintained her dedication to humanist and even radical ideals, while tempering her understanding of revolution as an evolutionary process.

Grace Lee Boggs can feel hopeful about Detroit not despite the city’s unstable financial and social condition but because of it. She retains the radical’s abiding faith that a new way of living can dawn. “We are in a time of great hope and great danger,” she tells Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. Yet, as American Revolutionary chronicles, this faith has also been tempered by mistakes, lost battles, unintended consequences, age itself and the sheer evolutionary force of social change. “It’s hard when you’re young to understand how reality is constantly changing because it hasn’t changed that much during your lifetime,” says Boggs. Still, channeling Hegel, she challenges people to “not get stuck in old ideas. Keep recognizing that reality is changing and that your ideas have to change.”

Boggs’ approach is radical in its simplicity and clarity: Revolution is not an act of aggression or merely a protest. Revolution, Boggs says, “is about something deeper within the human experience — the ability to transform oneself and transform the world.”

Here’s to living a good, honest, inquisitive and fearless life and inspiring others to do the same. You will be missed, Grace Lee Boggs.

[If you’re so inclined, I imagine that donations would be welcome at the Boggs Center.]

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3 Comments

  1. Jean Henry
    Posted October 5, 2015 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    I really can’t think of anyone who has bolstered and moved me like Grace Boggs. Listening to her speak was heaven for me. She was fiercely intelligent and full of joy and fight. I didn’t know all those things could be in balance in one person until I first encountered Grace. I wish more activists held to her doctrine of constant questioning as the essence of ‘struggle.’

  2. Meta
    Posted October 6, 2015 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    “In our bones we sense that this is no ordinary time. It is a time of deep change, not just of social structure and economy, but also of ourselves.” -Grace Lee Boggs

  3. Kristin
    Posted October 6, 2015 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I liked this On Being, too. I’m so glad GLB was in this world as long as she was. http://www.onbeing.org/program/grace-lee-boggs-a-century-in-the-world/1060

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