A Legacy of Activism
A critically acclaimed new documentary traces the evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, Ph.D. ’40, philosopher, civil rights activist, and community organizer.
By Kathy Boccella
To outsiders, the abandoned auto plants and boarded-up homes of Detroit are fading symbols of the end of America’s industrial era. But to renowned 98-year-old political activist Grace Lee Boggs, Ph.D. ’40, Michigan’s Motor City is a living laboratory for her ideas about reinventing 21st-century society—and the only place she wants to be.
“I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit,” she says in the powerful opening scene of a new documentary about her life as she ambles slowly and with the aid of a walker past gutted out, prairie-engulfed schoolhouses and auto plants. “Detroit gives a sense of epochs of civilization, in a way that you don’t get in a city like New York. I mean, it’s obvious by looking at it that what once was … doesn’t work. People are always striving for size, to be a giant. And this is a symbol of how giants fall.”
On the cusp of her 99th birthday and with her adopted hometown under siege from crime, decay, and municipal bankruptcy, Boggs is having a moment. A full-length movie—American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Bogg, about her remarkable life as a political activist—has been winning rave reviews on the film-festival circuit and is now slated to air nationally on PBS’s POV on June 30. And nearly three-quarters of a century after leaving the Bryn Mawr campus with her Ph.D. in philosophy, Boggs’s evolving views on community empowerment and sustainability—such as urban farming in the shadows of abandoned factories—are looking prophetic in 2014.
“I think that Detroit is already providing a model for changing the world,” Boggs said last year on PBS’s Tavis Smiley, where she discussed the completion of the film and her most recent work planting community gardens in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. “People come from all over the world to see what we are doing. People are looking for a new way of living. People understand there is something unsustainable and really invalid, humanly, about the way that we’re living.”
The daughter of Chinese-American immigrants, and born two years before America entered World War I, Boggs still keeps a surprisingly busy schedule—writing columns for the Michigan Citizen, speaking several times a week to college students or civic groups in the Detroit area, and discussing urban farming or her new activism-focused charter school at meetings in the Boggs Center, the second floor of the home in which she has lived for a half-century.
Now the American Revolutionary film is introducing Boggs’s unique career, which spans the labor activism of the post-World War II years as well as the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, to a new generation. Yet the documentary might not exist were it not for a fortunate coincidence. In 2000, a young film student at UCLA also named Grace Lee was just embarking on a documentary called The Grace Lee Project—aimed at using their shared name to bust stereotypes about Asian-Americans—when the then-86-year-old activist visited the campus.
Filmmaker Grace Lee included Boggs in The Grace Lee Project which came out five years later, and she was also determined to go back and make a movie focused solely on the Detroit activist. That film became American Revolutionary. Lee said in an interview that she was taken with how Boggs’s ideas about activism—about revolution, economics, and forging ties with the black community—were so different from the so-called “identity politics” of her generation of Asian-Americans.
“She doesn’t speak in a jargony way because her whole life has been spent with regular people,” Lee says. “She knows how to talk to us in that way but can also hold her own in a true intellectual debate.” American Revolutionary covers both Boggs’s life, including her long marriage to James Boggs, a black autoworker-turned-activist who died in 1993; and her radical ideas on social change.
Many of Boggs’s views were forged after she arrived on the Bryn Mawr campus in the mid-1930s with America mired in the Great Depression and Europe on the brink of World War II. In an interview with the Alumnae Bulletin a couple of years ago, she recalled how her professor, Paul Weiss, introduced her to the writings of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who believed that true social progress required patience and a tolerance for pain.
Boggs says she learned that Hegel “lived through the French Revolution and began to face its contradictions not only in the Napoleonic dictatorship but in the emergence of industrial labor. And he began to realize that we had in some way to recover our souls.”
Leaving Bryn Mawr with her doctorate in 1940 and bound for the Midwest—first Chicago and then Detroit—Boggs developed her beliefs that the cerebral world of the philosopher can, and should, be merged with the life of a community organizer on gritty urban streets.
“I call myself a philosophic activist,” Boggs says. “And I call the kind of organizing we do visionary because it looks at a crisis as having the potential for growth and spiritual growth.”
For better or worse, life in Detroit presented her with many crises in which to put her ideas to the test. These included the steady loss of industrial jobs that began in the 1950s, the July 1967 uprising in predominantly black neighborhoods that claimed 43 lives, and the widespread abandonment of the city that followed. The upheavals only strengthened Boggs’s view that, like her inspiration Hegel, she was living in a revolutionary period of world history.
That notion attracted fellow activist Shea Howell, who has worked closely with Boggs and her center for four decades. “In the early ’70s, people came to Detroit because the revolution was right around the corner,” she recalled, adding, with a laugh, that “it turned out to be a bigger corner than we thought.”
But Boggs showed a remarkable knack for adjusting to changing conditions in Detroit. Although the mass activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s faded, she worked with her husband, James, to focus more closely on the immediate crises of crime and drug abuse in the inner city. Howell recalls that Boggs worked with relatives of victims of handgun violence to form a group called Save Our Sons and Daughters while marching against neighborhood crack houses under the banner of We the People Reclaim Our Streets, or WEPROS.
“We … told them, dope dealers, you’d better run and hide because people are uniting on the other side,” Boggs says. “These are forms of activism which really involve people.”
At the same time, Boggs never stopped refining and updating her philosophy of revolution as a vehicle for social change. She authored five books on the topic, including The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2012. She believes the story of failed industry and mass consumerism that’s told by Detroit’s decline is proof that humankind is looking to return to an economy rooted in local, sustainable production.
“We have to reimagine work,” Boggs says. “We have to reimagine education. I like to say that at this point we are in the midst of a cultural revolution as far-reaching as that from hunting and gathering to agriculture 11,000 years ago and from agriculture to industry a few hundred years ago.” Her activism is increasingly focused around environmental issues, a cause that barely existed when she embarked on her long career.
“She’s very concerned with ecological crisis and the possibility of the extinction of human life,” says Howell. Last September, the doors opened on the east side of Detroit for the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter school at which students—initially about 80 kids in four grades—learn to become what one parent called “solutionaries” by learning community-oriented skills such as urban farming.
The school is one way of ensuring that Boggs’s large legacy will live on, but so is American Revolutionary, which has already been screened at film festivals in San Francisco and Woodstock as well as on numerous campuses, including Barnard College, where Boggs earned her undergraduate degree. By email, Boggs wrote recently that, “I liked the film and felt it did a good job of capturing my life,” but she seemed most pleased that audiences are responding.
Filmmaker Grace Lee says the documentary is connecting with “people who are looking for new ways to think about history and change. She’s just one person, but I think she contributes to a larger conversation.”
It’s a conversation that Boggs is eager to keep going. She said a couple of years ago, “I’m very old, hard of hearing, afraid of falling, but thank goodness I still have my marbles, or most of them” and insisted that as a “follow-up” to working into her late 90s, she planned to keep going until 104 … at least.
Lessons from a Revolutionary Life
Here are some of Grace Lee Boggs’s observations on life as she nears her 99th birthday, culled from her conversation with the Bulletin as well as a 2013 appearance on Tavis Smiley.
On growing older:
Well, I have good genes [laughs] … But you know, if you grow old and, at the same time, you grow in wisdom and knowledge and to have a sense that you are part of a very long evolution, it really is very helpful.
On being an immigrant:
My mother and father were immigrants. My mother never learned how to read and write because she was brought up in a small village where there were no schools for female children. She gave birth to my sister on the floor in steerage. Her life wasn’t miserable but was a challenge. And I think when you are born different, you have an advantage because you either spend all your life trying to be accepted, or you recognize that you have something different about you.
On the meaning of activism:
It should be about how we can grow through crisis. Most people think of soul as a physical thing. In fact, they kind of thought it was in the pineal gland. I think of soul as a potential, as a capacity to create the world anew. And I think every crisis creates that opportunity and that challenge.
Her advice for young people:
Well, I would tell them how the tendency in our society, with some justification, is to be concerned about very material things. And that, beyond a certain level, is very destructive. And that their concern with questions of who they are, of identity, of what this country is all about, what’s happening in the world, is really part of maturing and breaking with some of the very materialistic and militaristic values of this country. This provides us with the opportunity to change the old American dream; to recognize that the old American dream is dead, and that we are the generation that must create a new one.