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Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs dies at 100

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Grace Lee Boggs, who died Monday morning, was remembered in Detroit and around the nation as an impassioned voice on the vanguard of social change, and an indomitable radical who never lost her optimism nor her considerable sense of humor.

Mrs. Boggs was 100. She died in her sleep at her home on Detroit’s east side.

The White House issued a statement late Monday afternoon in which President Barack Obama noted how sorry he and Michelle were to hear the news.

“As the child of Chinese immigrants and as a woman,” the president wrote, “Grace learned early on that the world needed changing, and she overcame barriers to do just that. She understood the power of community organizing at its core — the importance of bringing about change and getting people involved to shape their own destiny.”

It’s an attitude echoed by those who knew her well.

“Grace was smart, funny, motivated and driven,” said Peter J. Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University, “always challenging people to think differently and think better.”

Filmmaker Grace Lee, who made “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” which aired on PBS in 2014, said she was struck by Mrs. Boggs’ warmth and penetrating intellect.

“Talking to her was like having a conversation with history,” Lee said, “but in an incredibly down-to-earth way.”

Berman: Grace Lee Boggs a link to Detroit past, future

In a statement, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said, “Grace Lee Boggs was a force for promoting social change, and we were lucky she chose to call Detroit her home.”

There will be a memorial to celebrate her life, according to her friend Shea Howell, but no date has yet been set.

Mrs. Boggs and her husband, James, an autoworker who died in 1993, were intellectuals and activists who spent their entire lives fighting for a range of movements — from black power and civil rights to environmental justice and women’s rights. The couple had no children.

Their friendship circle included Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

That Mrs. Boggs was a Chinese-American woman deeply involved in the struggle for African-American civil rights was an irony not lost on her many admirers around the country.

In “The Evolution” documentary, black liberationist Angela Davis declared,“Grace has made more contributions to the black struggle than most black people have.”

Mrs. Boggs was born in 1915 in Providence, R.I., but moved to New York City when she was 8, where her father ran a Chinese restaurant. She entered Barnard College at 16 on a scholarship, and after graduating got her doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940.

She moved to Detroit in 1953 to write for a socialist newsletter “Correspondence,” and shortly thereafter married James.

Mrs. Boggs said she and James wanted to offer an alternative “to the Bolshevik revolutionary prototype,” promoting a distinctly American vision of radical change and social equality. The two wrote widely and published “Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century” in 1974.

In 1992, they co-founded the Detroit Summer, a multicultural youth program to help rebuild collapsed neighborhoods. They also helped form Detroit’s Save Our Sons and Daughters, which tried to reduce youth homicide and support families who lost children. Two years after James’ death, she set up the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in their longtime Detroit home.

In 1998, Mrs. Boggs published her autobiography, “Living for Change.”

Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York, in 1999 and the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame 10 years later, the daughter of Chinese immigrants was widely recognized as a seminal voice in progressive American politics over the past 60 years.

The Detroit News named Mrs. Boggs a Michiganian of the Year in 2006.

The late president of the Detroit City Council, Maryann Mahaffey, told The Detroit News in 2005, “Grace Boggs’ legacy, for many, is giving a vision. It’s faith in people. There’s no one answer, and she’s sophisticated enough to know that.”

In the “The Evolution” documentary, the centenarian had a piece of advice that epitomized her lifelong intellectual path: “Don’t get stuck in old ideas.”

Decades ago, noted Wayne State’s Hammer, “Grace would have styled herself a pretty militant leftist. But what I respected most about her is that she lived a life where she was always evolving and challenging her own thinking.”

He said her core beliefs never changed: “She cared intensely about society and fairness and justice for all.”

She cared about her adopted home as well, and never lost her conviction that Detroit was on the cutting edge of social change and hope.

“I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit,” she told Lee in the documentary.