Feminist Hero Friday: Grace Lee Boggs

by Michelle Kiang

“You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.” – Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs, who passed away at 100 this past October, was an activist, a philosopher, an author, a community leader, and a revolutionary. Her activism extended across several movements, including Black Power, Civil Rights, labor, feminism, and environmental justice. In 1992, she co-founded the Detroit Summer youth program to rebuild and renew Detroit.

Grace Lee Boggs, who was born to Chinese immigrant parents in Providence, Rhode Island in 1915, studied at Barnard College and went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. When she couldn’t find a job after grad school, she moved west and worked at the University of Chicago’s philosophy library, where she earned only $10 a week and lived in a rat-infested basement rent-free.

One day, while walking through her neighborhood, she saw a group of people protesting the rat-infested housing. Boggs recalls this moment as one that first connected her with the black community, and community activism. She said to NPR, “I was aware that people were suffering, but it was more of a statistical thing. Here in Chicago I was coming to contact with it as a human thing.”

In 1940 she moved to Detroit and worked editing the radical newsletter Correspondence, where she met autoworker and activist, James Boggs, whom she married in 1953.

Aside from being a public intellectual, activist, community leader, and wisdom-giver, Grace Lee Boggs was also a prolific author. In 1974, she and her husband co-wrote Revolution and Evolution In the Twentieth Century. In 1998, she published her autobiography, Living For Change. And in 2011, she co-wrote The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The Twenty-First Century with Scott Kurashige.

After her husband died in 1993, Boggs, at 78, became even more involved in Detroit’s activist communities, providing her home as a meeting place, and her time and advice to young activists. In 2005 she began writing a weekly column for the Michigan Citizen, until she was 98.

Boggs was always an advocate for deeply reflecting about our actions and activism, once interrupting a cheering audience at a lecture and prompting them to reflect before cheering, telling them, “As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that philosophy has to do with how we value ourselves as human beings, and how we look at ourselves, and how we relate to reality.”

At the core of everything Grace Lee Boggs did, during her century in this world, was humanity and thoughtfulness. I have listed above all of her achievements, projects, and activism, many of which she accomplished well into old age because I wanted to honor her journey, her impact, her hard work, and her unyielding power to always be critical.

I first learned about Grace Lee Boggs, last year, after watching the documentary on her life and work, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” (currently available on hulu AND Netflix Stream). She is this week’s Feminist Hero, because of her work, because of her activism, and most importantly, because she reminds us that at the core of everything we do, should be our humanity, our thoughtfulness, and our community.

“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 sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values” – Grace Lee Boggs

In case you want to witness and be awed by her knowledge and power, here are some clips of her appearances in Democracy Now!

Abaki Beck