Amazing Grace: the legacy of a Human Rights Advocate and Activist
Grace Lee Boggs’ legacy and unwavering strides continue to feed into the current state of America. She was a Chinese American woman that became a leading ally in the Civil Rights Black Power Movement. As a major vanguard for social change, she founded community organizations, organized political movements, marched against racism, lectured widely on human rights and wrote on a breadth of topics, but predominantly on her continued vision for a revolutionized America. One that she believed could be reached through the combination of aligned moral values and a commitment to community. Her life’s work would lay the foundation for the following generations of women to strive to be more, learn more and speak more. Paving the way for a new tradition of woman: one that spoke her mind, walked freely, and sought change with confidence.
America’s current issues echo through the dialogues and social changes Boggs implemented. The modern day renaissance of social movements for racial justice, gender equality, immigration reform, fair labor practices, along countless others find roots and inspiration in Boggs’ impassioned stance on revolution from individual transformation of morality.
“We are not subversives, we are struggling to change this country because we love it.” - Grace Lee Boggs
Born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island, Boggs developed a heightened awareness to her America, her race, her experiences and those of other minorities. She not only challenged the stereotypes of her race and gender, but also created a sense of multiculturalism within her communities. Her Chinese given name was Yu Ping, meaning Jade Peace, which is a perfect homage to her life’s work.
Boggs attended Barnard for her undergrad education and Bryn Mawr for her Ph.d, where she grew especially inspired by the teachings of Kant and Hegel. Kant’s social ideologies would later inspire her own manifesto for change, based on community organizing and resurgent moral values.
She met her husband, James Boggs, who was an African American political activist and author, when she moved to Detroit in the 1940s to help edit the radical newsletter, The Correspondence. The couple became two of the city’s most influential and prominent activists. Addressing issues such as labor, civil rights, feminism, black power etc. Together in 1974 they wrote Revolution and Evolution in The Twentieth Century, which had an entire section on the class forces in the United States. The book set forth an important critical exploration of the social dynamics within America, which would help to facilitate new dialogues around issues pertaining to social justice.
In the summer of 1963, Boggs helped organize Detroit’s legendary Great Walk to Freedom down Woodward Avenue, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave a version of his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Later that year, Grace and James helped Malcolm X organize the Grass Roots Leadership Conference in Detroit. Grace would even try to convince him to run for Senate, though unsucessfully.
As she worked along major figures for justice, the force of her influence was profoundly multiplied: an Asian American woman helping to construct a voice, a vision and ultimately, a quest for equality. A remarkable and breath-taking feat that continues to be a pillar for activists today.
She emphasized the ideology that change for the world started with transforming ourselves to transform the world. Much like if you drop a pebble in a pond, it will ripple out, Boggs believed the whole of humanity’s way of thinking and acting, started with the individual. Within these methods, she also advocated for the importance of being patient for revolution. Her voice changed the way people related to political issues. It instilled hope and a sense of ownership in how individuals chose to react and revolt. Giving assurance to the principle that the fight they were fighting was significant and that their actions mattered.
Around the 1960s tensions heightened in Detroit and urban crime was rising quickly. Boggs saw it as a poisonous by-product of capitalism and a moral crisis. As she observed the social landscape, she moved her efforts to a newly developing organization called Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD). A group of black women that were fighting and organizing marches against violence as well as demanding restructuring the public school’s curriculum.
In the mid nineties she founded Detroit Summer, which engaged local youth to plant community gardens with school children. She hoped with this initiative that they would be able to 40 square miles or so into a mirad of small collective farms, a model she believed would lead to a sustainable future for her community.
After her husband passed in 1993, her philosophies and intentions began to shift from revolution to the human experience. She began to redefine her own work as an activist, philosopher and leader.
She founded the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, which is a charter school that incorporates Detroit and its various issues throughout history into its curriculum.
In a talk she gave at UC Berkeley in 2012 with Angela Davis on non violence, she received a standing ovation, showing her remarkable ability to connect and inspire people of all generations.
All of these various, but interconnected actions and implemented philosophies not only showcase her commitment to developing and preserving community, but also highlight her passionate belief in creating shared moral values.
Her powerful optimism and perseverance for change are noble traits that inspired and informed so many individuals. She valued and saw the significance of community organizing at its core — bringing about change and organizing people to get involved to shape their own destiny.
Grace Lee Boggs rewrote the definition of a woman, an Asian-American woman, through her relentless work against the systems of injustice and oppression. Her impassioned quest for defining and creating justice is but just one story we can find strength and joy within. She manifested her truth and developed a voice that would echo years beyond her.
Rae Davis is a guest writer based in San Francisco, that has a background working within different art contexts. She has written for SF Art Enthusiast, Noisepop, and Wine + Bowties.