And all the good that the Occupy Wall Street movement has done- I don’t think their language their ideas are profound enough. They are against the corporations, rightly, they are against the greed and the avarice that corrupts our society. But the need to imagine an alternative in philosophical and human terms the need to grow our souls, to say that proudly and unashamedly to talk about the kind of tremendous human transformation we have to make. We must be courageous enough to think that way, and to talk that way and to relate that way.
– Grace Lee Boggs
The fact that she was born to Chinese immigrant parents in Rhode Island back in 1915 isn’t the only attribute that makes her a rare figure in the realm of social activism. It’s the tireless, ever-evolving commitment to positive social change through reclaiming our humanity that makes the 98-year-old visionary a modern day heroine.
The daughter of a restaurant owner, her academic ambitions were far beyond what was expected, particularly for a woman of color. Regardless, young Grace Lee received a full scholarship from Barnard College, from which received her BA in 1935. She went on to earn a PhD from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. In an era where women faced serious challenges advancing in the worlds of academia, the enthusiastic intellectual was fortunate enough to land a low paying job at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library. As legend has it, this is where the seeds of her own revolutionary philosophy took root.
Early on, her participation in Socialism led her to James Boggs. Grace moved to Detroit, eventually marrying the activist and autoworker. The two remained progressive philosophical colleagues for some 40 years, until his passing in 1993. Their combined passion for uncovering a meaningful means of lasting change aided them in leading advancements in Civil Rights, Labor, Environmental Sustainability, Women’s Rights and Black Power movements.
Grace Lee Boggs affinity towards the Black Power movement in the 60’s put her in close contact with many dynamic figures of the time – namely Malcolm X – who was a regular guest whenever visiting Detroit. In 1964, she tried to convince the late revolutionary to run for U.S. Senate. Boggs explained to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman how the events surrounding the Black Power movement molded her viewpoint:
“Well, you know, like many Black Power activists in the ’60s, I tended to think of King as somewhat naive with his advocacy of nonviolence. … I identified with Malcolm much more, as many of us did in the movement in the North. And it took the rebellions of the late ’60s, and the crime and violence that began to erupt in our cities following — particularly in Detroit — following the rebellions for me to ask, ‘you know, is it possible that there is something in King’s message that we have to internalize in order to rebuild our cities, to redefine our cities, to re-spirit our cities?’”
On that note, she told Bill Moyers “We could no longer separate ethics from politics or view revolutionary struggle simply in terms of us vs. them…The absence of this philosophical/spiritual dimension in the Black Power struggles of the 1960s helps to explain why these struggles ended up in the opportunism, drug abuse, and interpersonal violence…”
Grace Lee Boggs’ contemplativeness & commitment to positive change is the basis of her thought-provoking evolution. Years of her tireless efforts led her to develop “visionary organizing” to free us from the notion of “leadership & followship” and embrace creativity as a means for a true revolution:
“We have to see every crisis as both a danger and an opportunity. It’s a danger because it does so much damage to our lives, to our institutions to all that we have expected. But it’s also an opportunity for us to become creative for us to become the new kind of people that are needed at such a huge period of transition… That’s why it’s so wonderful to be here today- that we dare to talk about revolution in such fundamental terms.”
Grace Lee Boggs has penned many inspirational articles, essays & books, including Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, co-authored by her late husband and her most recent work, The Next American Revolution, Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century She was focus of a recent documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs and is also the founder of the vanguard Detroit-based multicultural intergenerational youth program titled Detroit Summer. At 98 years of age, Mrs. Boggs continues to travel across the nation, speaking of visionary activism, while sharing the lessons learned from a lifetime of relentless civic engagement.
“In the 1950s Einstein said the splitting of the atom has changed everything but the human mind and thus we drift towards catastrophe. And he also said that imagination is more important than education. In other words the time has come for us to reimagine everything. We have to reimagine work and go away from labor. We have to re-imagine revolution and get beyond protest- we have to re-imagine revolution and think not only about the change not only in our institutions but the changes in ourselves.. We are at the stage where the people in charge of the government and industry are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. And it’s up to us to reimagine the alternatives and not just protest against them and expect them to do better.”
– Grace Lee Boggs