Detroit Civil Rights Activist Grace Lee Boggs Dies At 100

Oct 6, 2015
Originally published on October 13, 2015 9:28 pm
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Grace Lee Boggs had a passion to remake the social systems she thought had failed most Americans. The activist, philosopher and scholar died yesterday at her home in Detroit. She was 100 years old. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, from our Code Switch team, has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Grace Lillian Chin Lee Boggs was the child of immigrants. Born above her parents' Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., Boggs entered Barnard College at 16 and would eventually earn a Ph.D in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. Despite that, she told radio host Amie Goodman, she couldn't find a job in academia or anywhere else in 1940.


GRACE LEE BOGGS: And in those days, the idea of a woman - or, let alone, a Chinese-American woman - getting a job at a university was unthinkable. The department stores would come right out and say, we don't hire Orientals.

BATES: Grace Lee had been sheltered from such outright by prejudice by her middle-class status and her relentless drive to assimilate into the white mainstream. But that post-graduate rejection slapped Boggs into the activism that became her hallmark for 70 years. Barred from mainstream employment, she worked as an organizer for tenants' and workers' rights for several years. Eventually that work brought her to Detroit, where she met and married James Boggs, an African-American auto worker and experienced organizer. Together they became an activist power couple, deeply involved in the civil rights and then black power movements. Neighbor and friend, Tawana Petty, says it's hard to remember when Grace Boggs wasn't a community figure.

TAWANA PETTY: She's been rooted in Detroit for so long. I mean, she helped organize the initial march on Woodward Avenue with Dr. King, where he first said, I have a dream.

BATES: A dream that became nationally famous in Washington soon after.

Petty says Malcolm X often stayed with the Boggs's when he returned to his hometown.


ANGELA DAVIS: Grace has made more contributions to the black struggle than most black people have.

BATES: That was '70s icon Angela Davis. She was talking to filmmaker Grace Lee for her documentary, "American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs." Boggs recalled to filmmaker Lee the challenges she and her husband faced right from the start of their interracial marriage.


BOGGS: When Jimmy and I went on our honeymoon, we had to sleep in the car coming back because we couldn't go into a motel.

BATES: Scott Kurashige is a professor at the University of Washington and co-author with Boggs of "The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The Twenty-First Century." Kurashige says many things Boggs did that were initially considered shocking, like her marriage, often became quite common. She believed revolution was about permanent change. He said Boggs agreed that movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter can galvanize activists to press for change, but can also burn them out.

SCOTT KURASHIGE: Grace understood that that level of rejecting injustice was important. But was needed was a transformation into the long-term strategies for rebuilding society from the ground up.

BATES: And that can start at the individual level, says Tawana Petty, who believes people can best honor Grace Lee Boggs this way.

PETTY: Think about what they plan to do in this next 100 years to make this world a better place for humanity.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.