One year after her passing, the legacy of Grace Lee Boggs continues to influence Detroit – and the world.
In a Chicago bookstore, throngs of people gathered around a nearly 100-year old Grace Lee Boggs. Many wanted Boggs to sign a copy of her book of essays from which she has just read, The Next American Revolution.
“She was so swamped it was like they were going to rip off pieces of her,” says Myrtle Thompson, who traveled with Boggs during the book tour.
It’s unusual for someone to reach the height of their popularity in their 90s. But that’s exactly what happened for Grace Lee Boggs, a child of Chinese immigrants who moved to Detroit in her 30s and became one of the most important civil rights activists and thinkers of her time. A biopic about her life, American Revolutionary, was released in 2013 to wide acclaim.
She passed away in October last year at 100, leaving behind a formidable legacy of institutions she helped form and people she mentored. And while they’re still coping with her loss, her influence continues to ripple through Detroit and the nation.
After receiving her Ph.D. in philosophy in 1940 – a rare feat at the time for a Chinese-American woman – she moved to Detroit, the symbolic and literal center of the American industrial economy. There she met her future husband and intellectual partner James (Jimmy) Boggs, who himself migrated to Detroit from rural Alabama to work in a Chrysler factory.
At first Grace and Jimmy were classic Marxists, working to mobilize labor in an effort to end the capitalist economy. But their thinking evolved over time. “Their interest in dialectical thinking was really crucial to who they were,” says Stephen Ward, history professor at the University of Michigan and author of a forthcoming biography on the Boggs, In Love and Struggle.
“They recognized that reality is constantly changing, so your ideas have to change alongside it. They came to see the concept of revolution as not just about taking state power, but about evolving to a new state of humanity. To, as they liked to say, ‘become a more human human being.’”
Detroit – where industrial society failed and left its black citizens behind – became the heart of their struggle. They saw it as a place of terrible suffering but also abundant possibility.
Richard Feldman, a board member of the Boggs Center and friends with Grace and Jimmy since the 1970s, says the last decades of their lives were dedicated to answering the question, “What is work when the jobs are never coming back?”
The case of Poletown brought this question into stark relief. In the early 1980s, a majority of the vibrant and racially integrated Poletown neighborhood was razed, and its thousands of residents relocated, to construct a General Motors assembly plant. The Boggs organized against the project, one of many disputes they had with former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
“(Mayor Young) was raised in the time of the Packard plant, when 18,000 people could work in one place,” says Feldman. “He believed in that kind of work and that kind of economy. But Grace realized the world changes.”
In 1984, Jimmy Boggs wrote an essay that called for an economy based on locally produced, sustainable goods. It seems downright prophetic given today’s trends in local sourcing.
In Detroit, the Boggs are partially responsible for that trend, as James’ essay and the talks surrounding it led to the creation of Detroit Summer. Started in 1992, the year before James passed away, the three-week summer program fostered youth leadership in activism through community projects like urban gardening, mural painting and intergenerational dialogues.
It was the manifestation of the Boggses’ newfound beliefs in local self-dependence. And it influenced numerous activists and professionals still working in Detroit today.
Julia Putnam was the first youth to sign up for Detroit Summer, so legend has it. She was 16 and a student at Renaissance High School. “School wasn’t answering the questions I had,” Putnam says. “The message I kept getting was that success meant I’d be able to leave Detroit.”
At Detroit Summer, Grace would approach Putnam and her fellow volunteers and ask big questions about the future of Detroit. “That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, she actually expects us to have a serious answer to this,’” Putnam recalls.
“And she’d really listen to what we’d say. Grace was committed to young people and took them seriously. … I always tell people my education started at Detroit Summer.”
After teaching in the Detroit Public Schools system for five years, Putnam became disillusioned at her inability to impact students and prepare them for life in Detroit.
Through lengthy discussions with Grace and others at the Boggs Center, Putnam co-founded and became the principal of The James & Grace Lee Boggs School, which emphasizes place-based education and creativity. The school just started its fourth year.
“I’m not interested in educating kids for today’s society, because today’s society is unacceptable for any child,” Putnam says. “I’m interested in helping kids understand different kinds of success and become people who can create a different society.”
Jenny Lee, executive director of Allied Media Projects, started attending Detroit Summer in 2002. “The idea was if young people could be encouraged to act creatively and entrusted with responsibility and told that their contributions were valuable, how different could our cities be?”
Lee also attended the Allied Media Conference (AMC) – a yearly summer event about harnessing the power of media to advance social justice – for the first time that year. In 2007, she and other organizers helped move the conference to Detroit, where it’s been for the last 10 years. Boggs gave the closing keynote speech and spoke about the new kind of activism and optimism she had witnessed.
“AMC has been focused on solutions more so than problems,” says Lee. “That is a direct result of her influence.” Before traveling around on book and film screening tours, Thompson started the urban garden Feedom Freedom with husband and longtime activist Wayne Curtis on Detroit’s far east side.
Thompson met Boggs in 2008, and the elderly woman of short stature made a strong impression on her. Not only did Boggs remain active and engaged late in life, but she also empowered others to act similarly. She encouraged Thompson to write because “your voice gets louder when you write.” On another occasion after a film screening in New York City, Boggs asked Thompson to address members of the Ford Foundation.
“She never made me feel like I wasn’t supposed to be in room,” says Thompson.
The institutions Boggs influenced remain strong, but her loss is still felt. “She had the ability to get beyond the banal and trite and expected conversation,” says Feldman. “This is a person who read a book every day or two and wrote excerpts on them. The only reason I sound a little smart is because of her.”
Thompson, who’s also on the board of the Boggs Center, says she had an uncommon ability to express the mission and purpose of their work.
But one quality of hers is impossible to reproduce, according to Ward. “She had the capacity to inspire individuals, especially youth, through dialogue. A lot of those people are now activists and artists engaged in a whole range of enterprises in Detroit.”