Grace Lee Boggs is a human rights and community activists who has struggled to better the lives of Detroit’s citizens for the past fifty years. She and her late husband, James Boggs, were instrumental in highlighting the role that women and minorities could play as forces for social change. Boggs also helped found many of the organizations dedicated to building community power in Detroit.
Grace Lee Boggs was born in 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island to Chinese immigrant parents. She graduated in 1935 with a B.A. in philosophy from Barnard College and in 1940 earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. During her studies, Boggs came to see her own individual philosophical struggles as part of a universal struggle of individuals to better society by questioning the status quo and offering improvements. In 1940, after graduating from Bryn Mawr, Boggs moved to Chicago and worked in the University of Chicago philosophy library. A chance encounter with a socialist student group, which was organizing a protest against the substandard housing in the neighborhood surrounding the university, gave Boggs the first outlet to apply her philosophy and launch her career as a community activist. As an activist for this group, the South Side Tenant’s Organization, Boggs helped organize protest demonstrations and meetings. Her efforts exposed her to the plight of African Americans and she decided to dedicate her life to community activism. Boggs moved back to New York City and immersed herself in left wing politics and community activism. Through her activities in the Socialist Workers Party, Boggs met the African-American political theorist C.L.R. James with whom she collaborated for several years. By 1950 Boggs had grown disenchanted with the internal political struggles and, what she considered, outdated ideas of the socialist parties to which she belonged. As a result, she, along with a group of other activists, including her future husband, James Boggs, began to publish the magazine Correspondence. In Correspondence, Boggs and her compatriots recorded the views and activities of the four social groups that they believed would become revolutionary social forces: rank-and-file workers, African Americans, women, and the youth. In 1953, Boggs moved to Detroit to work on Correspondence. That same year she married autoworker and union activist, James Boggs. Together they became a force in local and national politics.
During the 1960s Boggs immersed herself in the struggle for African-American political power in Detroit. In 1964 she became the coordinator of the Michigan Freedom Now Party. In 1967 she helped organize the Inner City Organizing Committee, which sought to develop African Americans for leadership positions. Her high profile role in the Black Power movement of the 1960s made her a target for anti-civil rights forces. The Federal Bureau of Investigation constantly monitored her actions, even creating a new social category to describe her: Afro-Chinese. After the uprising of July 1967, Boggs was named in a Detroit News article as one of the six people responsible for the uprising. The 1967 uprising was a turning point for Boggs in how she viewed the struggle for human rights. After 1968 Boggs and her husband began to advocate for revolution to improve the lives of African Americans. They differentiated between rebellion as a movement that tore down the old and revolution as the movement that built something new. In their minds, African Americans needed to concentrate on leading a revolution against the capitalist economic and political system in the United States, which had turned human relationships into money relationships. During the 1970s and 1980s Boggs turned to community organizing as the key component to building a better future. She organized in the community to support care for the elderly, fight crime, organize unemployed workers and fight utility shut offs.
Over the past two decades, Boggs has helped organize several groups who have fought to save Detroit’s communities. Detroiters Uniting fought the attempts by Mayor Coleman Young to establish casino gambling in Detroit. Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD) was committed to stemming youth violence and We The People Reclaim Our Streets (We-Pros) combats drugs by demonstrating in front of crack houses. In 1992 she helped found Detroit Summer, a program in which youths come from all over the country to work on community projects that help revitalize Detroit’s neighborhoods.
Photo credit: Robin Holland https://robinholland.
Boggs, Grace Lee. Living for Change: An Autobiography. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 1998.