Grace Lee Boggs, accomplished author, feminist, tireless community organizer and champion of civil rights, died “peacefully in her sleep” yesterday at her home in Detroit. She was 100 years old.
Born June 27, 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island to Chinese immigrants, Boggs grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. At 16, she enrolled in Barnard College, graduating in 1935 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. After earning her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College in 1940, Boggs struggled to find employment as a professor, finally settling on a library position at the University of Chicago. Earning just $10 a week and living in free housing, Boggs observed firsthand the poor living conditions of many low-income—mostly minority—communities, an experience that informed her activism for decades to come.
In the early 1950s, following a brief stint in New York working with socialist theorist C.L.R. James, Boggs relocated to Detroit to write for socialist newsletter Correspondence. Soon after, she met James Boggs, a black activist and autoworker who Boggs would later describe in her 1998 autobiography as a speaker “with such passion, challenging all within hearing to stretch their humanity.” The pair married in 1953 and together championed civil and labor rights, feminism and the environment, even co-authoring Revolution And Evolution In The Twentieth Century in 1974, a tome detailing various political and social revolutions for the purpose of extracting lessons applicable to the revolutions of today.
Though they both identified closely with the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, and hosted at their home political and social agitators including Malcolm X, Boggs ultimately embraced Dr. Martin Luther King’s signature nonviolent approach to effecting social change. In Detroit, the city she called home for the remainder of her life, Boggs founded several community groups, including food cooperatives for the elderly, rallied to support unemployed workers, wrote weekly columns about local government policy in The Michigan Citizen (a practice she continued until she was 98!) and penned several books. Fiercely devoted to nurturing future leaders and activists, in 1992, at 77, Boggs co-founded Detroit Summer, a still-popular youth program wherein volunteers spruce up houses and neighborhoods, painting murals and planting community gardens. Just two years ago, Boggs opened the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter elementary school that makes community engagement a core tenet of the curriculum.
Boggs’ belief in the power of people, not institutions, to effect meaningful change will resonate long after her death.
“We have to reimagine revolution and think not only about the change not only in our institutions but the change in ourselves,” said Boggs in a public conversation with fellow activist Angela Davis in 2012. “We are at the stage where the people in charge of the government and industry are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. And it’s up to us to reimagine alternatives and not just protest against them and expect them to do better.”
Photo courtesy of American Revolutionary