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Celebrating the Revolutionary Work of a 100-Year-Old Activist

Writer and activist pioneer Grace Lee Boggs should go down in history as a true American visionary. She was born in Providence, R.I., in 1915 to two Chinese immigrants. In 1953, she moved to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black writer and radical activist. Even though she was already a published author by then, Detroit was where she began her lifelong work to promote equality and peace through morality. In 2015, after a life well spent, she died peacefully in her home at the age of 100.

In 2007, Boggs told Bill Moyers in a PBS interview, “I think that too much of our emphasis on struggle has simply been in terms of confrontation and not enough recognition of how much spiritual and moral force is involved in the people who are struggling.” She continued,  “We have not emphasized sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves in order to force the government to do differently.”

In the late 1960s, she and her husband had a close relationship with The Black Power Movement. Malcolm X stayed at their home in Detroit, and the FBI even reportedly had them under surveillance.

“What we tried to do is explain that a rebellion is righteous, because it’s the protest of a people against injustice,” she told Mr. Moyers. After a time, however, she realized that violence was “a turning point in [her] life, because until that time, [she] had not made a distinction between a rebellion and revolution.”

Eventually, she began to shift towards the nonviolent practices of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and would continue advocating for that approach for the rest of her life. As the economic situation in Detroit worsened, Boggs became a symbol of resistance and hope for the people who lived in her community.

As an author and an activist, she founded many local community centers, food banks, and charity organizations for the disadvantaged, and wrote a column in The Michigan Citizen about battling police brutality, poverty, and civic reform.

In 1992, Boggs co-founded Detroit Summer, a multiracial youth program that involves people of all ages. To this day, it invites volunteers from all over the country to repair homes, paint murals, host speak-outs, organize music festivals, and turn vacant lots into community gardens. Then, in 2013 – two years before her death – she opened the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter elementary school.

Her first book, George Herbert Mead: Philosopher of the Social Individual, is about the founding of social psychology by the American scholar, George Herbert Mead. She then went on to write several other works, including Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, Women and the Movement to Build a New America, Living for Change: An Autobiography, and The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century.

In her writing, Boggs emphasizes not only her love of America, but her identity as a patriot and what that means. Dissent and dissatisfaction with a political climate do not make someone un-American or an anarchist. Fighting to better one’s country when he or she sees something wrong is the most patriotic thing a person can do.

Featured Image by University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability on Flickr

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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