Grace Lee Boggs, a legendary, Detroit-based civil rights icon who remained deeply involved in her work until her last days, died Monday of natural causes.
Boggs’ seven decades of political activism touched “the major U.S. social movements of the past hundred years,” as the bio for her last book put it. She turned 100 years old in June, her birthday marked by a weeklong series of events in Detroit.
Over the course of her career, Boggs befriended and worked with numerous civil rights leaders and socialist thinkers from around the globe. She was repeatedly credited for her work in the civil rights, black power, labor, environmental justice and feminist movements.
An online story by NBC News, headlined “The Chinese-American woman behind the black power movement” and published last year before her birthday, acknowledged the novelty of her background in light of her life’s work.
Her activism began in Chicago, where she fought for tenant rights with the Workers Party, an American socialist, pro-labor political party. She was inspired, she said, by A. Philip Randolph, a towering figure in the U.S. civil rights and labor movements. When President Franklin Roosevelt desegregated the armed forces to avoid a march on Washington that Randolph had planned, Boggs said, that “made me decide I was going to become a movement activist.”
In 1953 she married a black autoworker and activist, James Boggs, and moved to Detroit. The couple was close to various Trotskyist socialists as well as C.L.R. James, a pioneering voice in Caribbean intellectual circles. In 1963, her husband published a seminal book “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook.”
When James Boggs died in 1993, Grace carried on.
A PBS documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” debuted last year. In the film, the director describes how “when Grace was 85, we could barely keep up with her. She attended several meetings a day, taught a class, collected petitions and constantly challenged everyone in her path.”
She remained active until the very end.
Her last book, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century,” was published in 2012 with a forward by acclaimed actor Danny Glover. A weekly column she wrote for The Michigan Citizen, an African-American weekly in Detroit that folded last year, was published until close to the paper's end.
Boggs was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1915. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she graduated from Barnard College and Bryn Mawr, where she received a Ph.D. in philosophy.
Her many honors include an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan, an induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and lifetime achievement awards from the Detroit City Council, the Anti-Defamation League’s Michigan chapter and the Association for Asian American Studies, among others.
The James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a community-based charter school on Detroit’s East Side, was founded by one of the early participants in Detroit Summer, a youth development program. Since 1992, hundreds of Detroit youths have participated in the program, which is affiliated with a low-cost bicycle shop and lets kids plant community gardens and paint murals.
She founded the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in 1995. According to the organization, its mission is “to nurture the transformational leadership capacities of individuals and organizations committed to creating productive sustainable, ecologically responsible and just communities.”
Her decades of work continue there.
“It’s a tremendous loss,” said Tawana Petty, a poet, a community organizer and an author who has served on the board of the Boggs Center for the past two years. “She was dynamic. Powerful. Brilliant. She was in touch with what’s happening in the world and in society until pretty much the very day that she left us.”
Petty, a Detroit native, added, “We were fortunate enough to have Grace for 100 years, but it’s a heavy time for all the people who have loved and have learned from her.”