Detroit celebrates 100th birthday of human rights activist Grace Lee Boggs

Jun 25, 2015

Civil Rights icon Grace Lee Boggs will celebrate her 100th birthday on Saturday. Celebrations will be held in Detroit to honor her work.

Grace Lee Boggs might not be the first name that pops into your head when you think of the civil rights movement. And the daughter of Chinese immigrants, born in Rhode Island and raised in New York City, might seem an unlikely candidate for a leading activist in Detroit’s African American community.  But for decades, she has been a social justice icon in the city.

From her involvement in the Black Power movement in the 1960's to her role helping to boost urban gardening, Boggs has dedicated her life to community building in Detroit.

Grace Lee Boggs will turn 100 this Saturday, and is being honored at celebrations throughout the city.

Current State talks about Grace Lee Boggs with Stephen Ward, an associate professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan and the author of an upcoming biography on Grace and her husband Jimmy. We also talk with Oakland University journalism professor and long-time friend of Grace Lee Boggs Shea Howell.


Stephen Ward, on how Grace and her husband played a role locally

Jimmy, her husband, had been in Detroit since 1940. When they were married in 1954 they were marital partners, intellectual and political partners. One of their main activities was publishing a newspaper, which they called Correspondent. The newspaper was designed to be a very different type of publication than normal, a radical paper, certainly different than normal mainstream papers, where it was to be written, edited, and circulated by the readers themselves. So they were working day to day in their local communities, in the eastside community where they lived, in the plants, the shops, where Jimmy and other workers in their group lived. So they were connecting with people in multiple spaces in multiple ways talking about ideas about experiences people had in the city and their neighborhoods and about ways to transform society.

Shea Howell, on Grace's idea of revolution

Well, I think the idea of revolution for Grace has changed over time. If you look at some of her early work, she criticizes her own thinking that in the early 30s, 40s, and 50s the radical movement very much saw revolution as seizing state power. But with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and with the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, followed by the Black Power Movement, Grace and Jim very much started to see revolution as something much more than the seizing of state power, but a much deeper process of human evolution. Where people really look at the values that they themselves hold that they want to carry to the future, and look at how they themselves need to change in order to make those values real.

Stephen Ward, on racial and cultural background as an influence in social movements

Her racial and ethnic identity were a part of one element of the mix of who she was and became to be. So, she surely faced some discrimination, being seen as something not quite American. But the ways in which I think that contributed to her political identity was that racially and in other ways she has often not quite fit in, not quite fit the mold. And that has given her an angle of vision I think, combined with her really intense belief and engagement with ideas.

So, it gives her a unique angle and vision to see things differently or to recognize different ways of seeing things. And really most importantly, I think, to call for reimagining different spaces, different ways that we think and do things.

Shea Howell, on the inspiration for youth programs in Detroit

Detroit Summer came out of the effort to address youth violence in the late 1980s. We began to say that just as young people had been part of rebuilding and redefining the country in the 1960s by answering the call to civil rights, the call of the 21st century is rebuilding our city.

So, Detroit Summer is an effort to reengage young people with actually building the cities. And that's how we got involved in urban gardening, public art. Ultimately that has lead to things like our participation in the Allied Media Conference that just had 2,000 young media activists here in the city of Detroit. Or the Boggs School that is going into its third year now with 112 young people learning about place-based education. So Detroit Summer was an effort is to say, fundamentally, young people are the solutions to our problem, not the problem