Writer-activist Grace Lee Boggs

The legendary figure in the struggle for justice in America shares some of the lessons learned about activism and social change.

Grace Lee Boggs has led a lifetime of social activism and, at age 97, remains active and relevant. Born in Rhode Island, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she received her Ph.D. in 1940 and began her activism in Chicago, where her efforts focused on women and people of color. After marrying auto worker -activist James Boggs, she moved to Detroit, where she still lives—and is a columnist for The Michigan Citizen. She and her late husband founded the multicultural intergenerational youth program Detroit Summer, and she's written five books. Boggs is the subject of the film, American Revolutionary, and she's been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.


Tavis: At almost 98 years old, Grace Lee Boggs has not only been a witness to so many social upheavals in this nation, she’s also been a passionate participant working for justice and fair play.

Over the course of her long life, she’s learned some important lessons about activism in America, lessons she’s now sharing with new generations through her continued work in her home town of Detroit, now in a new documentary, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” Let’s take a look at a clip in which she walks through her old neighborhood in Detroit.


Tavis: I’m honored to have you on this program. Thanks for your time.

Grace Lee Boggs: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: I know we’ve talked on radio any number of times over the years. My first time having you on this show, so I’m glad you’re here.

Boggs: I’m glad to be here.

Tavis: Let me start by asking what it is about Detroit that still makes you hopeful. When people look at these scenes of Detroit these days, they read the news about Detroit, at 98, after all these years, you’re still bullish on Detroit. Why are you so optimistic about Detroit’s future?

Boggs: Well, you know, that picture is of the Packard Motor Company which was still producing cars when I came to Detroit 60 years ago. It’s now 30 acres of broken glass and broken concrete. When I came to Detroit, if you threw a stone up in the air and it came down, it would hit an autoworker because the Chrysler Jefferson plant where my husband worked was very close also to where we lived.

But when the few years because of production of cars again in Germany and Japan went high-tech, the Packard plant moved to Wisconsin, stopped producing cars and the Chrysler plant went down from hiring 17,000 workers to 2,000 workers.

If you threw a stone up in the air, on the way down it would hit a vacant lot or abandoned house. And some people thought that was the end of everything. But particularly African Americans who had come from the south and they looked at those vacant lots, they said that’s the opportunity to grow food for the community and give city kids a different sense of time and change.

And they began to transform the city and we began to create a city that’s much more sustainable in terms of the environment, that’s much more healthy in terms of walking around and riding bikes, where we grow our own food, where we’re creating a whole new society which is post-industrial. And that turning point, the evolution of humanity, is a great privilege.

Tavis: So what do you think the future of Detroit is?

Boggs: I think Detroit is already providing a model for change in the world. I think that Detroit – I mean, people come from all over the world come to see what we’re doing. People are looking for a new way of living.

People understand that there’s something unsustainable and really invalid humanly about the way we’re living. And it’s not got to be against capitalism, but it’s just recognizing that all the contradictions of an industrial society are coming home to roost and we have to create something new, and we are.

Tavis: Talk to me about the humanity of the people of Detroit. I’ve always loved Detroit, most importantly not because of the cars, not even because of Motown. There’s a lot to love about Detroit, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, Smoky Robinson. So much to love about Detroit. But talk to me about the people of Detroit, the humanity of these people and their perseverance.

Boggs: Well, Detroit, first of all, is a movement city and we used to think that the movement was going to come from labor. And what’s happened without our thinking of it or predicting it is the movement began to come from people, people just growing food for themselves, people taking charge of their neighborhoods, people thinking about safety in terms of neighborliness rather than in terms of the police, a whole new culture that is, I think, culturally as important as the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and from agriculture to industry.

Tavis: How important do you think Detroit has been to the nation, culturally speaking?

Boggs: Well, of course, we were once the symbol, nationally and internationally, of the miracles of production and we thought that producing more, faster, even at the expense of the human beings on the line, was progress, that we believed that was not unnatural, considering what an important figure Henry Ford was and the Ford plant.

But that was not sustainable and, you know, I was born in the second decade of the 21st century and I’m here now in the second decade of the 21st century. And those dreams of the 20th century are dead and we are shaking the world with a new dream.

Tavis: And to your mind, what is that new dream?

Boggs: That new dream is bringing the neighbor back into the hood. That new dream is growing our own food instead of using trucks that bring food from 1,500 miles away and using up a lot of fuel. That new way of living is when I said bring the neighbor back into the hood.

Tavis: Yeah. How did you get to Detroit?

Boggs: I came there to organize workers. I was working with C.L.R. James, I believed in Marxist ideas about the labor and movement and the workers being the secret to the future. And I learned differently just by being in Detroit and being married to Jimmy Boggs.

Tavis: Tell me about Jimmy Boggs.

Boggs: Jimmy Boggs was born in a little town called Marion Junction, Alabama where there were as many pigs, or more pigs, than even the people [laugh]. But you know what? People in the south had an understanding that you could make a way out of no way and that’s how they survived.

He became a writer because the people of his community couldn’t write and he had to write, at eight years old, the letters for the family. And he knew how to take advantage of a bad situation and turn it into a good one.

Tavis: How did you then become partners in your work? Tell me about your partnership and the work that you two did all the years together.

Boggs: Well, I chased after Jimmy [laugh].

Tavis: And why were you chasing Jimmy?

Boggs: Well, if you asked him how we got together, he would laugh and he’d say, “Grace got me.” I think I understood that there was something very fresh and very new here. I had been brought up – I lived in New York City. I came from the Big Apple.

I had a lot of abstract ideas and here was somebody who was very much alive in his community and to whom people in his community looked for leadership. It was an extraordinary experience.

Tavis: I want to ask you about the causes that you’ve worked on over your lifetime. I want to start specifically with labor, since we’ve already kind of mentioned that. Let me start by asking why you got involved in labor work and what you make of the labor movement today.

Boggs: Well, I didn’t start with the labor movement. I was working for $10 a week in Chicago in the philosophy library and…

Tavis: Did you say $10 a week?

Boggs: $10 a week. Well, you don’t understand that ’cause you’re a young man [laugh]. But, you know, a lot of people back in 1940 didn’t make much more than $500 a year or $1,000 a year. But it wasn’t much money, just the same.

So I lived rent-free in an apartment in the basement and I had to face the barricades of rats in order to get into my home, and that made me rat-conscious and that brought me into contact with the Black community [laugh].

Tavis: I get that. So you come in contact because of these conditions, these horrific living conditions. You come in contact with the Black community. What was your way in? What was the relationship like when you first started hanging out with Black folk?

Boggs: Well, you know, in 1940-41, the Black movement was on the march. A. Philip Randolph was mobilizing workers. People got Blacks to go to Washington to march on Washington for jobs. And we scared the daylights out of Franklin D. Roosevelt and he begged Randolph to call off the march and Randolph wouldn’t call off the march and he finally issued Executive Order 802 which banned discrimination in defense plants.

And that changed the whole country and the world. When I saw what a movement could do, I said that’s what I’m gonna do with my life.

Tavis: A. Philip Randolph, for those who may not know the name, you gotta Google it and look him up. He was the head of the Pullman porters way back in the day, one of the great Americans still in many ways unsung. But he’s a legend in Chicago and a legend, quite frankly, in this country. A. Philip Randolph, the name.

Since you mentioned Randolph and the fear that you all put into the heart of FDR, FDR presided over a very difficult time in this country economically. Can you compare for me that difficult economic period with this difficult economic period under Obama?

Boggs: Well, I think, first of all, I was a student during the Depression of the 30s. And for some reason I don’t understand, I felt it was necessary to become a philosopher. I don’t know why. I didn’t even know what philosophy was.

But I think the crises that we experienced during the 20th century have seemed like economic crises, but there are more crises of our humanity. How do we think of ourselves? What do we do? Are we just interested in jobs so that we can buy a lot of goods and become materialists? Or are we living a life that violates human values?

And I think that the understanding of that and the understanding that we have to grow our souls and not just our economy is beginning to dawn on the people, and the world needs that.

Tavis: I love you. Of course, you know that already. And this is why I love you so much. So you mentioned FDR and A. Philip Randolph and the work that they did together. This year, as you know, this week in fact, marks the 50th anniversary of the big march in Detroit.

Now a lot of folk don’t know this. Let me turn to this camera right quick here and, again, you can read all about this online these days, one of the blessings of the internet.

So the famous “I Have a Dream” speech that Dr. King gave at the march on Washington in August of ’63, we will celebrate 50 years of the “I Have a Dream” speech, the march on Washington, 50 years this coming August. Before King got to Washington to deliver that speech, he actually went through Detroit right about now.

And it was in Detroit where he really tried out the theme of “I Have a Dream.” He kind of worked that out and used Detroit basically as a testing ground for the speech that he would later give in August at the march on Washington he now is most famous for. But he did that first in Detroit. Grace Lee Boggs was in the audience that day.

Boggs: I was one of the organizers.

Tavis: One of the organizers. Not just in the audience. In fact, let me give her props. She was one of the organizers, not just in the audience that day when Dr. King came through Detroit for this grand celebration, over 100,000 folk in…

Boggs: 250,000.

Tavis: See? I’ll let you tell the story [laugh]. You’re 98. I’m only 48, but your memory’s better than mine. So go ahead and tell me the story of what happened that day in Detroit.

Boggs: Well, you know, Birmingham had happened. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights had decided to boycott the merchants downtown in Birmingham during the Easter season and they had messed up the economy.

So they jailed Martin Luther King and, after they jailed Martin Luther King, James Bevel said we ought to mobilize the children. And the children began marching and Bull Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on them. And people saw that all over the country.

And in Detroit, CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, and the UAW organized a rally to protest it and only a few people showed up. And we were there, Reverend Cleage and other people and myself, and we said we want Cleage. Cleage was a really fiery agitator in the Black movement.

And Cleage got up there and said we should have a march that would scare the devil out of the police and they would hide and we would go. So we started organizing that march and it was amazing. We had no idea what would happen, but Cleage got in touch with Reverend Franklin, father of Aretha.

Tavis: C.L. Franklin.

Boggs: C. L. Franklin, whose church, New Bethel, was just down the street. And we decided to meet in churches every week and announce the march. And to our amazement, on the day that it was to happen, people come pouring out of the sides from all over the state and we didn’t know that it was gonna be like that.

It just electrified the city and it made a huge difference in the whole role that Detroit began to play in the movement.

Tavis: Every time I go to Detroit and I have the occasion to speak inside of Cobo Hall, I get down and I kiss the ground for what that hall represents relative to this march, the day you all met there.

Boggs: Well, that was the new Cobo Hall.

Tavis: You’re right. There’s a new one, but back in the day when every time I would go to Detroit to see the old Cobo Hall, I would just celebrate what actually happened that day in that building.

Boggs: Well, I think that in time to come, people will celebrate Detroit not only for further marches, but for creating a whole new way of life.

Tavis: When this documentary that’s out now, which is called “The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” what is the evolution that we’re talking about? What’s been your evolution?

Boggs: Well, I think when I joined the movement, the idea of revolution came from the Russian Revolution from 1917, and the whole idea was to seize power. But what we have experienced in the 20th century is taking state power means, in fact, that you’ve become a prisoner of the state and we’ve seen the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So a new concept of revolution has been overdue and we created it in Detroit not because we were thinking in theory because the circumstances provided the opportunity to do so.

Tavis: Speaking of your evolution, back in the day, since I referenced Dr. King, you had one view of Martin Luther King, Jr. and over time your view of Dr. King has shifted a bit. What did you think of King back then and what do you think of King now?

Boggs: Well, the movement in those days was very preoccupied with the question of tactics, so we thought that nonviolence was silly. We didn’t have really a long enough perspective. But when I saw the amount of violence that came out of just thinking of violence, particularly when King made his speech about a radical revolution of values, I recognized that he also knew that we were on the threshold of something very different and something very new.

There’s a book that’s come out called “Occupy Spirituality.” We are on the threshold or in the midst of a kind of radical spiritual activism and moral imagination that’s really necessary for this period.

Tavis: So you feel a little differently about Dr. King in retrospect?

Boggs: Yes, I think so because King called for us to realize that we’re on the wrong side of the world revolution. He began to give us a sense of a different sense of a global citizenship. It was no longer a question of taxes. It was a question of vision.

Tavis: You mentioned “Occupy Spirituality,” this new text that’s just come out not too long ago. What do you make of the Occupy movement? For people in this younger generation, this is the most activism they’ve seen in their young lives.

Boggs: Well, I think there’s a limitation to militancy and I think the Occupy movement lacked a vision. But I think that’s beginning to emerge and I think we have to provide it.

Tavis: And how do we provide it?

Boggs: By this talk show [laugh].

Tavis: Another reason why I love you [laugh]. Let me ask you this. What do you make of the fact – and if I had more time, I could do this for hours ’cause you’re so fascinating to talk to and there’s so much in your head.

But it is amazing to me, at 98, that you have outlived so many of the people that you not only have worked with, but you’ve outlived so many of the people that you have critiqued and criticized and had disagreements with in your life. What do you make of that?

Boggs: Well, I have good genes [laughs]. And what I do, I think, makes me a little wiser, which helps. It’s healthy. I mean, growing old is not for sissies, you know. It’s kind of tough. 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.

Tavis: See? Now you hit on something that I’m dying to get your answer to. As a Christian, the Bible that I read tells the story of King Solomon who asked for one thing. He wanted wisdom. Of all the things he could have been given, he asked for wisdom. The scripture says, “In all the getting, get an understanding.” In all that you get, get an understanding. So Solomon asked for wisdom.

You are clearly a very wise person and you talked about growing older and gaining in wisdom and gaining in knowledge. At 98, what can you say to me and those watching about the best way to make ourselves more knowledgeable? How do we get more wise as we get older and not just get older?

Boggs: Well, I think the first thing is to recognize that every crisis is both a danger and an opportunity. And other thing that I’ve learned is that human beings are not like a school of fish. They do not all react in the same way. And radicals tend to think of individuals as a mass. I think individuals are a people more in terms of very different.

Some people are paralyzed and mobilized by crisis. Some people want to do something, but don’t know what to do. Other people begin thinking very creatively in a visionary way. The task of an organizer is to recognize and empower and nurture those people who think in very visionary ways.

Tavis: At 98, what gets you out of bed every day? What motivates you to get up and move?

Boggs: What I have to do.

Tavis: Yeah, what you have to do. And what is it at 98 that you think you still have to do?

Boggs: I don’t know. I don’t know whether I’m going to go gently into that night or whether there’s going to be more things that I have to do.

Tavis: But you’re okay with having more work to do?

Boggs: I don’t know. I have to think about it [laugh].

Tavis: In retrospect – this is an impossible question. I’m gonna ask anyway. In retrospect, are you happy? Are you content with the life that you have lived?

Boggs: I think I would be remiss if I were not, so I am.

Tavis: And so are we.

Boggs: Thank you.

Tavis: And so are we. I’ve waited for this day a long time to actually get you on this set so that I could get this documented on camera. It’s been great to talk to you on radio, but I am delighted to have had you on this show. Thank you.

This documentary, you have to see it, “The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” What more can I say? I think this has been just a teaser of what you’re going to get when you get a chance to see what I suspect will be an award-winning documentary starring this legend in her own time.

That’s our show for tonight. As always, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.

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Last modified: September 9, 2013 at 1:07 pm