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James Boggs: A visionary revolutionary

Herb Boyd | 7/31/2014, 11:55 a.m.
There have been countless African-American thinkers and activists—men and women—unassociated with academic institutions, yet who have nonetheless made considerable scholarly ...
James and Grace Lee Boggs in the 1960s

There have been countless African-American thinkers and activists—men and women—unassociated with academic institutions, yet who have nonetheless made considerable scholarly contributions. Many of these individuals, such as James Boggs, are known by only a small circle of activists and should be better known for their unstinting work in the struggle for Black liberation.

ACTIVITIES

FIND OUT MORE

Fortunately, James Boggs’ widow, Grace, is still around and eagerly dispensing information and knowledge, mainly about the work they did to further the struggle for black liberation. But “A James Boggs Reader”, compiled and edited by Stephen Ward, is indispensable in the search for more about the couple.

DISCUSSION

The ideas formulated by James Boggs stretch across a generation, and it is useful to follow them from the beginning in the 1950s to the end of his life. He was a deep thinker, and some of his ideas are just as pertinent today as they were 40 years ago.

PLACE IN CONTEXT

James Boggs left Alabama in the late 1930s for Detroit, which, in less than a decade ,would be the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Therefore, he had a unique perspective on watching the changing aspects of race relations, union movement, and political formations.

Of course, to mention Boggs’ name in Detroit, even among the current crop of young activists, would draw immediate recognition. The next thought would be of Boggs’ lifelong companion, Grace Lee Boggs, who, in her 90s, is still cogent and restless. While the two revolutionaries were inseparable during their years on the ramparts, we devote this column to the male member because he is no longer with us.

Boggs was born on May 27, 1919, in Marion Junction, Ala., not too far from Selma. His place of birth, as we have come to learn, was infested with nightriders and members of the Ku Klux Klan, who were not opposed to expressing their feelings about Jim Crow using a noose. This was no place for someone with an inkling of resistance, and by the time he was 18, Boggs caught the first train smoking for Detroit, following a trail that had been worn by thousands of blues people from the region.

He arrived in Detroit with empty pockets and a head full of dreams, settling into the city’s Black Bottom section with relatives. Three years later, Boggs secured a job at a Chrysler assembly plant, where he would work for nearly 30 years.

In a matter of months, his spirited resolve and unshakable desire for fair play were a boon to the United Automobile Workers, where he became a member of the so-called “Flying Squadron,” a group that provided protection to striking workers on the picket lines.

In the union’s Local 7, Boggs was involved in several committees, all of which provided some of the lessons that would ground his later theoretical articles and books about the labor movement, about “strikes, wildcats, picketing, goon squads and stuff like that,” he would later write.

By the 1950s, Boggs, having sampled the political tendencies of the UAW, NAACP and a few community groups, joined a collective that had split from the Socialist Workers Party. It was in this context that he met and married Lee, who, with her Ph.D. in philosophy, made them a political odd couple. But always inquiring thinkers, they broke with the group and thereby abandoned Marxism and the notion that the working class would be in the vanguard of revolutionary change.