Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American human rights activist involved with civil rights, philosophy, feminism, and the environment and a noted figure in Detroit’s Black Power movement.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, to Chinese immigrants in 1915, Grace Lee Boggs studied at Barnard College and went on to earn her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. Her introduction to philosophy was at a young age where she was influenced by the work of Georg Willhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Polanyi, and Karl Marx. She was astonished by the process and challenge of thinking through complicated ideas.
After finishing grad school, Boggs faced prejudices and discrimination that made it difficult for her to find work. According to NPR she recounts how even department stores wouldn’t hire her. “Even department stores would say, ‘We don’t hire Orientals,’” Boggs says. She eventually moved to the Midwest to find a job to support herself. She worked at the University of Chicago’s philosophy library, working at a low wage of $10 a week. With a stipend this low, she was forced to find free housing in a rat-infested basement.
Boggs was living in poor living conditions, so she joined a group of protestors that were living in the same conditions as she was. She recalls, “I was aware that people were suffering, but it was more of a statistical thing.” “Here in Chicago, I was coming into contact with it as a human thing.” For the very first time, this connected her with other communities that were experiencing the same conditions.
A few years later, in the 1940s, Boggs moved to Detroit and continued her activism to the newsletter, The Correspondence, to help edit. She met her husband in Detroit, James Boggs, who was an auto worker and activist. They married in 1953 and together, they became the city’s most prominent activists, tackling issues related to labor and civil rights, discrimination, and the environment.
In 1974, they wrote Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century; in 1998, she published an autobiography, Living for Change; and in 2011, co-wrote along a professor and author, Scott Kurashige, titled The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century.
Her ideas centered around changing an individual’s perspective on the issues she faced, rooted, and guided from her personal studies in philosophy. She reflects and realizes that these issues are a philosophical question. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that philosophy has to do with how we value ourselves as human beings, and how we look at ourselves, and how we relate to humanity,” she says.
Boggs ideas challenged and reshaped the thinking of generations of activists, including Tawana Honeycomb Petty, a writer and community organizer.
Her husband James passed away in 1993, when Grace was 78. There partnership was deeply respected and continues to influence a generation of activists. She started the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in a dedication to her late husband. It is a charter school in Detroit, where she met her husband, with a curriculum dedicated to there teachings.