In the annals of Detroit’s radical history, Grace Lee Boggs was unique. A child of Chinese immigrants, she was married to a revolutionary African-American worker-activist, and she was as determined in her fight for justice and equality as the implacable forces she challenged. Boggs’ irrepressible struggle ceased Monday, Oct. 6. She died in her sleep in Detroit. She was 100.
During most of her activist years, Boggs was inseparably linked with her husband, James Boggs, who died in 1993. They were by no means an odd couple but an uncompromising tandem of revolutionary theory and practice. There were times when James Boggs would start a theoretical concept and Grace Lee Boggs would finish it. For more than 40 years, they were a dauntless duo, ever ready for the next battle against injustice and political repression.
Even after her husband’s death, Boggs was unflagging in lending her time and energy to countless causes, ever the community organizer who carried on her husband’s mission and message that the city is a “Black man’s land.”
Born Grace Chin Lee in 1915 in Providence, R.I., she came of age in New York City. Her father was the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant. She was always a bright and brilliant student, and it came as no surprise when she won a scholarship to Barnard College. In 1940, she earned her doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Her first job, after encountering a series of racial and gender obstacles, was at the University of Chicago, where she worked as assistant librarian. The low pay and living in a Black ghetto sensitized her to the plight of the downtrodden. She was active in a number of community protests around landlord and tenants disputes, with a keen eye on national and international affairs.
It was during this time that she began to delve into ideological conflicts and became well grounded in Marxist ideas. She was just beginning to grasp the complexity of Marxian thought when she became a member of the Workers Party, whose most prominent figure was C.L.R. James. Along with Raya Dunayevskaya, a former secretary for socialist leader Leon Trotsky, she was one of James’ closest associates. Together they forged a political organization that was called the Johnson-Forest Tendency, the pen names of James and Dunayevskaya, respectively.
One of the critical documents from the group was “The American Worker,” the foundation of James’ “American Civilization,” a wide-ranging expression of his thought and ideas. Boggs, under the pen name Ria Stone, wrote the philosophical analysis accompanying the document. She had also translated portions of Marx’s unpublished “Grundrisse.”
The Johnson-Forest Tendency broke from the Troskyites and renamed itself Correspondence, and James Boggs was the editor of the paper that bore the same name as the organization. In 1953, Grace Lee moved to Detroit to work on the paper. She had met James Boggs two years before in New York City, and back together again, they soon married. By 1957, James and Dunayevskaya were no longer with the group, and Grace Lee Boggs became the editor of the paper. Meanwhile, her husband began writing a column for the paper that would eventually become his book “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebooks.” In the introduction to the most recent edition of the book, Boggs wrote that her husband began to think dialectically. “That is: to recognize that, in everything, there is the duality of both the positive and the negative, and that things are constantly changing and creating new contradictions so that the ideas that once were liberating can become fetters on our imagination.”
The Boggs’ never had any fetters on their imaginations, and at their home on the east side of Detroit, they continued their community activism, particularly in concert with a small group of young people eager to take advantage of their political acumen and experience. But it was the personal dialogues between her and her husband, the poring over strategies and tactics, analyzing the dynamic of change, especially in the workplace, that made them such sought-out thinkers at conferences and political rallies.
Their combined thinking and writing were indispensable in the evolution of politics in Detroit, with such formations as the Group on Advanced Leadership, Freedom Now and Uhuru. Later, they would form the Advocators, which grew out of the Committee for Political Development, and join the National Organization for an American Revolution.
In 1992, a year before her husband’s death, they founded Detroit Summer, an attempt to weld together the city’s disparate parts to give the young people a sense of pride and purpose. When the elders stopped giving the young people time and care, the Boggs were always willing to hear their plight and ground with them on possible solutions.
“I have countless scenes of her [Grace] listening intently to what young people would say,” said long-time friend Shea Howell, a journalism professor at Oakland University. “If there’s any image of her that’s lasting, it’s not of her talking, it’s of her listening to people.”
And thousands listened to Boggs, none more intently than during her several visits to New York City to speak to close friends and associates and at public gatherings, such as the one at the Ethical Society in 2009. At that time her restless spirit was as evident as ever, and there was no end to the questions hurled at her, and no end to her concise and passionate responses.
To gather the full import of her life, to experience what she and her husband meant to a community, you will have to be in Detroit when they begin the memorials in her honor.
As Detroit activist Ron Scott often said about her, all you had to do was say “Grace,” and everybody knew who you were talking about.