At 100 years old, human rights activist, feminist, environmentalist and author Grace Lee Boggs died at her home in Detroit on Monday.
Her death was announced by the James & Grace Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, an organization Boggs established in 1993 after the death of her husband.
Boggs had maintained a long-standing relationship with the University over the course of her lifetime. In 2003, she was the University’s keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. In 2009, she received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree from the University.
Additionally, she influenced the launch of Semester in Detroit, a University program that allows students to live and study in the city.
Stephen Ward, assistant professor in the Residential College and in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, features Grace Lee Boggs prominently in his curriculum and worked with her during her life.
Ward studied the Black Power movement in graduate school and, in that context, became familiar with the Boggs’ work.
“Although she’s not African American herself, she was very much immersed in the Black community in Detroit and the Black circles across the country,” Ward said.
Born in Providence, R.I., in 1915, Boggs was the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Early in her childhood, her family relocated to New York, where Boggs grew up. She completed her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Barnard College and her doctorate in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
“I would describe her as a philosopher-activist,” Ward said, “She never taught philosophy, but philosophical thinking was always important to her.”
After participating in the March on Washington Movement — formed to protest segregation in the armed forces — in the 1940s, Boggs was inspired to continue fighting for equal opportunity for the Black community for the next seven decades. Influenced deeply by Marxism and left-wing radicalism, she became active in the labor party, civil rights and the Black power struggles.
Ward said Boggs’ more visible accomplishments through the University, such as her honorary degree, were important, but what’s more noteworthy were the less visible displays of University friendship such as the years of guest lecturing.
“She didn’t just say what she had to say and leave. She really engaged with students, challenged students,” Ward said. “She challenged everyone she spoke with to think more deeply about what they were interested in and to see themselves as able to come up with the ideas and carry out the actions to bring about the changes that we need.”
Ward said Boggs and her husband lectured at the University as early as 1962.
“She’s been coming to U of M for decades,” Ward said. “In the 1970s they started coming every year.”
Boggs settled in Detroit in 1953 and shortly thereafter wed James Boggs, an employee of Chrysler and fellow civil rights activist.
Their home became a hub for visiting civil rights leaders, a breeding ground for fellow organizers hoping to see reforms for women, labor equality, education access and an end to institutionalized racial discrimination.
“From over seven decades of being an activist and writer there was this really rich network of overlapping communities,” Ward said.
Ward said Detroit was an important base for Boggs to develop her ideas and a network of activists because she saw the changes occur firsthand.
“When she came to Detroit it was at its peak population of 2 million,” Ward said. “She lived through the population and economic decline in those 60 years.”
As of 2013, Detroit’s population is 688,701.
Along with serving as an informal center for visiting activists, Boggs and her husband created several organizations to increase community development to combat the aftereffects of the Detroit race riots in the 1960s.
Boggs also continued the tradition of uniting communities through education and activism in Detroit later in life with the creation of her charter elementary school — the James and Grace Lee Boggs School — in 2013.
LSA sophomore Darian Razdar, an intern at the Boggs School last year, wrote in an e-mail interview, that his interest in human geography and radical social justice initially led him to apply for an internship.
“I saw a revolution happening at the Boggs School thanks to the visions of James and Grace Lee Boggs, and it continues to give me faith in the work we do,” Razdar said.
Razdar added that he was intrigued by how the school operated under a model called Place Based Education, a learning process which allows students to explore their communities at young ages.
Amid these efforts, Boggs also continued political writing. She co-wrote the book “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century” in 2011, describing how radical social change can be created in the modern world.
Ward said Boggs’ work profoundly influenced the reading materials and subject matter of his classes, which includes her book in a curriculum that centers around meaningful engagement with communities beyond the University.
Her involvement was also central to the University’s Semester in Detroit program.
Wards said Boggs had been involved with the program since its inception and was instrumental in the process.
“She was connected to the program from the beginning — in her work and her writing and these networks that she built were instrumental,” he said.
Razdar, who participated in Semester in Detroit, wrote that the program helped inform his interest in connecting with the city.
“I had one of the most enriching educational experiences I could ask for with Semester in Detroit,” Razdar wrote. “All the academics provide a great context for actually living and engaging with the city through my internship, working with grassroots communities and just getting to know other people living there.”
Overall, Razdar said he thought Boggs would want those she educated to reflect back on her life and move forward with their activism.
“She’d want us to reflect on what she had taught us and to keep going, and planting the seeds for revolution in ourselves and our communities,” Razdar said. “So, that is what I have resolved to do in light of her death. Rest in Power, Grace Lee Boggs.”