“People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative. . . . We need a vision that recognizes that we are at one of the great turning points in human history when the survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values.”
A prominent activist her entire adult life, Grace Lee was born in Rhode Island in 1915, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She studied at Barnard College and Bryn Mawr, receiving her Ph.D. in 1940. Her studies in philosophy and the writings of Marx, Hegel, and Margaret Mead led not to a life in academia, but rather to a lifetime of social activism.
Lee´s activism began in Chicago, where she joined the movement for tenants’ rights, and then the Workers Party, a splinter group of the Socialist Workers Party. In these associations, as well as in her involvement with the 1941 March on Washington, Lee focused on marginalized groups such as women and people of color. In 1953, Lee married black auto worker and activist James Boggs and moved to Detroit, where she remained an activist for another six decades, until her death, at age one hundred, in 2015.
Grace Lee Boggs embraced a philosophy of constant questioning—not just of who we are as individuals, but of how we relate to those in our community and country, to those in other countries, and to the local and global environment.
Boggs rejected the stereotypical radical idea that capitalist society is just something to be done away with, believing more that “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”
She believed that it is by working together in small groups that positive social change can happen, not in large revolutions where one group of power simply changes position with another.
With this philosophy, she and her husband founded Detroit Summer in 1992, a community movement bringing together people of all races, cultures, and ages to rebuild Detroit—a city Boggs has described as “a symbol of the end of industrial society . . . buildings that were once architectural marvels, like the Book Cadillac hotel and Union Station, lie in ruins. . . and in most neighborhoods people live behind triple-locked doors and barred windows.”
Working from the ground up, Detroit Summer’s activities included planting community gardens in vacant lots, creating huge murals on buildings, and renovating houses. In more recent years, the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership—along with other grassroots Detroit organizations growing out of Detroit Summer—continue the good work of Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs.
Film director Grace Lee (unrelated) explored Boggs’s life and ideas in her documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. The film premiered on PBS in 2014. Boggs’s books include Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (1974, cowritten with James Boggs); Women and the Movement to Build a New America (1977); Living for Change: An Autobiography (1998); and The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (2011, cowritten with Scott Kurashige ). Boggs also advocated through her weekly column in the Michigan Citizen.
“We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
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