In Memoriam: Grace Lee Boggs

Legendary activist and advocate for social change Grace Lee Boggs passed away on Monday at the age of 100. UC Press published The Next American Revolution in 2011. Her editor, Niels Hooper, shares what it was like to work with Grace and what he’ll miss about her.

Grace Lee BoggsI came to Grace Lee Boggs late, in 2009, through my friend Scott Kurashige. Scott—teaching at the University of Michigan—was living in Detroit and working with Grace, shaping her prolific articles, columns, speeches, notes and correspondence into a book, with the working title, Radical Wisdom from a Movement Elder.

Grace Lee Boggs certainly deserved that moniker. Born during the First World War, she earned her Ph.D. in 1940—a remarkable feat for a young Chinese-American woman—when Martin Luther King, Jr. was still in grade school. She worked with the famous black Marxist intellectual, C. L. R. James, married the labor organizer Jimmy Boggs, counted the Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah among her close associates, and met with Malcolm X to persuade him to join her organizing activities. She was not just a witness but, as she said, was “privileged to participate in most of the great humanizing movements of the past seventy years—the labor, civil rights, Black Power, women’s, Asian American, environmental justice, and antiwar movements.” She thought long and hard about what it means to be an American and a human being as well as how we can be “the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”

Living in Detroit from 1953 until her death on Monday, October 5, 2015, Grace Lee Boggs also witnessed the heyday and nadir—and led a grassroots revival—of the great American city. Credited in some quarters as being among those who incited the famous 1967 Detroit rebellion—the largest in US history until the Rodney King rebellion in Los Angeles—Grace Lee Boggs came to see Detroit as a paradigmatic American site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s devastating “triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.” Situated, now, at the epitome of the decay of an industrial society—as Scott writes, “a firsthand look at a dying order”—Grace Lee Boggs saw instead the possibility of rupture with the mistakes of the past, and opportunities to remake society anew locally, organically, through critical connections on the ground, from below. The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and the Detroit Summer are testament to that. And they brought attention and praise from visitors—Time Magazine, Rebecca Solnit writing in Harpers. . . even the Financial Times.

So while the book that Scott and Grace proposed was inarguably full of “radical wisdom from a movement elder,” that title belies the fact that Grace Lee Boggs’s last book was, above all, a book rooted in the economic, political, and environmental crises of our time, and a book that argues for the future. Till the end—this week—Grace Lee Boggs was looking forward, not backwards, and working with unflagging faith in the inevitability of the next American Revolution.

She argued that the next American Revolution…

  • has to be radically different from the revolutions that took place in pre- or non-industrialized countries such as Russia, Cuba, China, or Vietnam.
  • is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming but also end the galloping inequality both inside this country and between the Global North and Global South.
  • requires very different forms of courage, commitment, and strategies than those required to storm the Winter Palace . . . it requires the courage to challenge ourselves to engage in activities that build a new and better world.
  • needs to begin creating ways to live more frugally and more cooperatively NOW.
  • requires rebuilding, redefining, and respiriting from the ground up: growing food on abandoned lots, reinventing education to include children in community building, creating co-operatives to produce local goods for local needs, developing Peace Zones to transform our relationships with one another in our homes and on our streets, and replacing a punitive justice system with restorative justice programs.
  • doesn’t aspire to the “political class”
  • sees that we can solve our health and education problems only by first creating a new concept of citizenship.
  • recognizes that Martin Luther King, Jr. began to develop a profoundly cultural and political concept of the next American Revolution as a revolution of values.
  • creates a revolutionary alternative to the counterrevolutionary and inhuman policies of the US government, but struggles to change this country because we love it.
  • is being created not by the cadres of a vanguard party with a common ideology, but by individuals and groups responding creatively with passion and imagination to the real problems and challenges that they face where they live and work.

Grace Lee Boggs argued that even though, in her lifetime, over 80 million people had been killed in wars, the times we live in today represent a crisis of epochal proportions that she had not seen before. And she saw more than ever that today’s cataclysmic climate change, economic instability, and rupturing of empire, created new opportunities both in America and across the world, to remake society from the ground up. “That is what Detroit is about and that is how the next American Revolution is beginning,” she insisted, while she remade Detroit and began the next American Revolution, and we would all do well to make these her legacies.

—Niels Hooper, Executive Editor

Learn more about Grace Lee Boggs at her website, graceleeboggs.com