An Activist's Journey
Legendary Detroit-based writer and speaker Grace Lee Boggs is a true revolutionary — with an FBI record to prove it
Photograph by Robin Holland
Fly under the radar. Keep a low profile. Do the work.
These are the words Grace Lee Boggs uses to advise protégés, her circle of influence, and her friends.
“That way, the ego doesn’t get in the way of actual progress,” says Michael “Doc” Holbrook, a Detroit community activist. “It becomes less about the person, and more about the movement.”
Although Boggs is Asian-American, she’s known for working on African-American issues. As Angela Davis, an icon of the 1960s Black Power movement, put it: “Grace has made more contributions to the black struggle than most black people have.”
She’s considered a true revolutionary, with an FBI record to prove it. The 99-year-old intellectual warrior has written several books and was the subject of American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, a documentary recently shown on PBS.
Boggs believes true social activism is not solely carried out by the stereotypical picketing, marching-to-city-hall protests — though she did her share of that. For her, it’s more the evolution of mind, of questioning status quo when it doesn’t make sense, and then speaking up with the best solution. Her identity has been tied to peace and social justice. She’s lived through many great moments in history, almost a real-life Forrest Gump, albeit shorter and much smarter.
Boggs has worked with national leaders such as Malcolm X, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis. She’s been in the trenches, educating and motivating the disenfranchised into action, telling them to pull each other up by the bootstraps and come together, unified by love for the community.
Born on June 27, 1915, in Providence, Rhode Island, to Chinese immigrants, Boggs grew up in New York City, where her father owned Times Square restaurant Chin Lee’s. She attended Barnard College during the Depression. Boggs, however, responded not with social action, as her peers did, but by turning inward and engaging in philosophical discussions.
Later in Chicago, she organized demonstrations and meetings against slum housing. “For the first time,” Boggs said, “I was talking with people in the black community, getting a sense of what segregation and discrimination meant.”
She formed a friendship with Trinidadian C.L.R. James, moving back to New York for a decade, writing for the Marxist movement. She believed that the powers of real change were the workers.
She experienced McCarthyism and the Cold War — the era of going underground in fear of being blacklisted, arrested, or worse. During this time she realized that one of the worst things a government could do to its people was to silence their voices.
She met James Boggs, a Detroit autoworker and community activist, in New York in 1952. Jimmy, as he was known by friends and loved ones, barely had a high school diploma, but was widely respected by intellectuals as a leader in his community. He went on to pen The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook in 1963.
In a recent documentary, Boggs said that “politics of the time said Detroit is where the workers are.” And so, in 1953, that is where she went.
Boggs hadn’t been eager to marry, partly because of her mother’s unhappiness with marriage, but also because of feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s thesis that wives are like prostitutes because they exchange sex for economic support.
One of her previous suitors, Kwame Nkrumah, who later became the first president of Ghana and founder of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), wrote to her asking her to marry him. Boggs de-clined, and said she couldn’t imagine being politically active in a completely foreign country.
Nkrumah reportedly said that if “Grace had married me we would have changed all Africa.”
But then, there was Jimmy. And despite their seemingly disastrous first date, with Jimmy refusing to eat the meal she had made and insulting her taste in music, they ended up engaged by the end of the evening. “He was more rooted and more secure in his identity as a human being than any man I had ever met,” Boggs said.
She and Jimmy — who died in 1993 — went on to create their own revolution. Today, the Detroit-based Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership runs many community-based programs.
One program started in 1992, Detroit Summer, brought 16-year-old volunteer Julia Putnam and Boggs together. Putnam later became the principal at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School.
“My 16-year-old self didn’t know the ‘me’ now was possible,” Putnam says. She wants to deliver on the mission that Boggs started. “A group of adults saying ‘I’m so glad you’re here and I want the best for you’ is strategic.”
“In love and struggle” is how Boggs signs papers, Putnam says, because she sees the two things joined together, equally important. One day, when Putnam was frustrated as an intern and they were arguing a lot, Boggs responded in sheer delight: “We’re struggling! Isn’t it great?”
One of Boggs’ legacies has been spawning and inspiring programs that successfully created models of racial integration, says Jacob Corvidae, who served as a community member of the Boggs Center and is the interim executive director of EcoWorks, a nonprofit with sustainability service programs.
“Avalon Bakery [was] borne from Grace’s work, though many don’t know it,” Corvidae adds. Ann Perrault and Jackie Victor started with an innovative approach to raising capital by selling “bread shares” to launch the bakery.
“It was essentially crowdfunding before the term existed,” Corvidae says. “And very much in philosophical line with Grace’s vision for community-supported services.”
Boggs’ protégés continue to make an impact. Stephanie Chang, the Democratic party nominee in November’s election for state representative in Michigan House District 6, served as the community engagement coordinator for the James and Grace Lee Boggs School for the school’s first year in 2013.
“I didn’t plan on running for office,” Chang says. Instead of leaving Detroit for a union-organizing field placement, she decided to stay and work on a campaign to try to keep affirmative action in Michigan. She was expected to become the first Asian-American woman to serve in the state Legislature, since the district is heavily Democratic.
Rich Feldman, a board member at the Boggs Center, says his two grown children both have carried on the fight for social justice and education.
His son, Micah Fialka-Feldman, successfully sued for the right to live on Oakland University’s campus in 2009 while attending a special program for students with intellectual disabilities.
Last May, Fialka-Feldman was appointed by President Barack Obama to The President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.
Feldman’s daughter, Emma Fialka-Feldman, lives in Boston and teaches at Mission Hill School (a school that shares similar goals and influenced the creation of the Boggs school). “I was impacted greatly by Grace and the people around me,” she says. “But I didn’t realize that until I left.” She feels what’s missing in today’s activism is Boggs’ admonition to take the time to pause and reflect:
“The criminal Mideast wars, climate crisis, and mass unemployment are bringing enormous pain and suffering,” said Boggs. “But these disasters also force us to recognize how many of our comforts and conveniences have come at the expense of other peoples, other countries, other living things. They challenge us to look in the mirror and begin living more simply so that others can simply live.”
At press time, health issues prevented Boggs from participating in extensive interviews. According to a spokesperson, she was spending time surrounded by “comrades and friends.” But her work will live on.
“I still love going to meetings that are part of the ongoing movement to rebuild, redefine, and respirit our cities from the ground up,” Boggs wrote in the conclusion of her book, Living for Change: An Autobiography. “But I am not the prime mover and I know that if I were no longer around, things would continue. … People still come to Field Street for information and materials.”
For more information, visit boggscenter.org.