DETROIT — Grace Lee Boggs died peacefully in her sleep at her home on Field Street in Detroit on Monday morning.
She had recently celebrated her 100th birthday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Lee’s life and work encompassed the major U.S. social movements of the past century: radical labor, civil rights, Black Power, feminism, the Asian American movement, environmental justice, and beyond.
Born on June 27, 1915 to Chinese immigrants in Providence, R.I., Boggs was an internationally known philosopher and activist for justice. A 1935 graduate of Barnard College, she was influenced by Kant and especially Hagel.
She was politically active since the 1930s, working with A. Phillip Randolph’s first march on Washington and later C.L.R. James. She met many activists and cultural figures such as Richard Wright and Katharine Dunham and was a member of the Workers Party and the Johnson-Forest Tendency.
After receiving her Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940, she found it difficult to advance in the world of academia and moved to Chicago, where a meeting of tenants protesting substandard housing brought her in contact with the black community for the first time. “I was aware that people were suffering, but it was more a statistical thing,” she said in an interview. “And in Chicago, I was coming in to contact with it as a human thing.”
She married James Boggs, an African American autoworker and activist, in 1953 and moved to Detroit, where they worked on a radical newspaper called Correspondence. For 40 years they worked together in advancing ideas of revolution and evolution for the 20th and 21st centuries. Her husband died in 1993.
She helped organize the 1963 March down Woodward Avenue with Dr. Martin Luther King and the Grass Roots Leadership Conference with Malcolm X. Later, with her husband, she helped organize SOSAD, WePros, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Gardening Angels and Detroit Summer.
Boggs was a founding member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and was a strong advocate for place-based education and supported the James and Grace Lee Boggs School.
“Grace died as she lived, surrounded by books, politics, people and ideas,” said Alice Jennings and Shea Howell, two of her trustees.
A memorial celebrating her life will be announced later.
President Obama said in a statement, “Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of author, philosopher, and activist Grace Lee Boggs. Grace dedicated her life to serving and advocating for the rights of others – from her community activism in Detroit, to her leadership in the civil rights movement, to her ideas that challenged us all to lead meaningful lives.
“As the child of Chinese immigrants and as a woman, Grace learned early on that the world needed changing, and she overcame barriers to do just that. She understood the power of community organizing at its core – the importance of bringing about change and getting people involved to shape their own destiny.
“Grace’s passion for helping others, and her work to rejuvenate communities that had fallen on hard times spanned her remarkable 100 years of life, and will continue to inspire generations to come. Our thoughts and prayers are with Grace’s family and friends, and all those who loved her dearly.”
Boggs wrote five books, including “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century,” co-written by Scott Kurashige with a foreword by Danny Glover and published by the University of California Press in 2011 when she was 95.
She was the subject of a 2013 documentary, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” directed by Grace Lee (no relation). The two first met when the filmmaker was working on “The Grace Lee Project” (2005).
“We are so grateful for the vision of justice and human connection that she gave us and feel incredibly privileged to have been able to share her story with others,” the film’s producers said.
POV is streaming the film for free until Nov. 4. Go to www.pbs.org/pov/americanrevolutionary/full.php.
Also in 2013, Boggs received the Visibility Award at the V3 Digital Media Conference at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. Interviewed onstage by MSNBC anchor Richard Lui, she talked about her husband:
“He said, ‘Nobody knows how to run this country better than me.…’ and people sort of snickered. He said, ‘You better think that way. You better stop thinking like a minority, because when you think like a minority you think like a victim.’ We have to start seeing ourselves as responsible for what’s happening now and in the future and see that as an opportunity and as a challenge rather than burden.”
Asked if she had learned anything recently, she said, “It’s no fun being old. I hope you all grow old also. It’s amazing — on the one hand people pity you. You’ve been very active, and then all the sudden you’re physically disabled. You’re dependent and yet, particularly in the Asian American community, you are honored.”
Boggs dictated the following public statement to close friends when she entered hospice care in September 2014:
“I am coming to the end of a long journey — a journey that began over 70 years ago at the beginning of World War II. This journey has basically been to show that there is an alternative to the Bolshevik revolutionary prototype. It has taken us a long time to accomplish this, but we have been able to do so both as a result of our historical vision and because of the very practical efforts of comrades who have risen to the challenge of creating a revolution unlike any revolution that has been in the past.
“Because of my increasing physical limitations in the last few years, I have not been able to play the role that I might have played. But that is not as important now as recognizing what has been achieved. A revolution that is based on the people exercising their creativity in the midst of devastation is one of the great historical contributions of humankind.
“We will be finding ways and means to celebrate this, one of which will be the Reimagining Work and Culture conference in October . We want people to understand how much this concept of new work and new culture is based upon not only enormous activity but also on vision and on imagination.”
In a “Message to the 99%” during the Occupy Wall Street movement, Boggs stressed that revolution does not just mean protest: “The enemy of ours is not just Wall Street, it’s a whole culture. You have to look at how you yourselves have become part of this culture.
“You have the opportunity to create something new. You have to be thinking about values and not just abuses.
“You must not be satisfied with rebellion. We need revolution. Revolution means reinventing culture.”