March 28, 2022

Grace Lee Boggs

By Philip Chin

Grace Lee Boggs had been a political activist since her early adulthood, and she became a towering name in American history, notably in labor, civil liberties, environmental justice, anti-war, women's rights, and Asian American and African American causes.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1915, her family sometimes used the surname of Chin, Chin Lee, and Lee. In the Chinese naming convention her father was named Chin Lee with the family name appearing first. White Americans naturally assumed his family name following Western convention was Lee so that was what stuck. The family moved to New York City in 1924 where her father opened a Chinese restaurant, Chin Lee's, on Broadway. In 1928 he opened another restaurant, Chin's, also on Broadway. Both proved to be quite successful businesses.

Grace Lee was of superior intelligence and won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York City when she was just 16 years old. She was attracted to the ideas of the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. She was particularly attracted to his idea that history is a continual struggle by individuals for greater freedoms against old ideas. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1940 with a doctorate in philosophy.

The 1930s was one of the most radical periods in American history when issues of history, economics, political systems, and the basis of society were being intensely debated. Because of the economic failures of the leading Western economies during the Great Depression that started in 1929, and the disillusionment with the flawed peace that followed World War I, people were looking for alternative forms of government and economics to lead them out of the mess. Grace explained her interest in philosophy in this way, "…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."

In 1940, Grace was made aware in no uncertain terms that the prospects of a Chinese securing an academic job at a university, even with a doctorate in philosophy, were non-existent, while office jobs were also closed to her. The prevailing racist attitudes of the time in the United States forced many Chinese Americans with high academic achievements to hold menial jobs that their illiterate parents or grandparents might have had or go to find work in China, a place that was completely alien to many of them culturally and by birth. Grace took a job that paid $10 a week at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library, a below average wage even in 1940. As she joked about it, "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." Her interest in tenant's rights as a result of her living conditions brought her into contact and then membership in the far leftist Worker's Party. The Worker's Party helped organize a tenant's association to protest the poor living conditions that their mostly African American members lived in.

She was inspired by the threatened March on Washington being organized in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was one of the most powerful African American majority labor unions in the United States. The march would have involved 50,000 African Americans and even the idea of it was a major headache to the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt that was trying to placate African Americans, who were a growing part of the Democratic Party, without antagonizing many core Democratic voters that openly supported white supremacy. The African Americans wanted an end to segregation, discrimination in the military and in industry, and protection of their civil rights. To forestall the protest, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 which banned racial discrimination in defense industries. This was considered a major victory for the early civil rights movement as it was the first federal action ever against employment discrimination. Grace said, "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."

In 1951 she became a member of the Correspondence Publishing Committee, a faction that split from the Worker's Party because of differing views about the Soviet Union and the lack of interest the Worker's Party had in issues affecting the Third World and minorities such as African Americans and women. Grace Lee was considered the third founder of the movement alongside C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya. She met James Boggs, an African American auto worker at the Chrysler plant in Detroit, who was active in leftist circles as a writer and thinker on the committee. They married in 1953 and Grace Lee became Grace Lee Boggs. She moved to Detroit to join James and help organize another branch of the Correspondence Publishing Committee there.

Grace was one of the primary organizers of the "Great March on Detroit" on June 23, 1963. Until that time people were unsure if the civil rights movement could ever attract enough people nationally to make it a force that American politicians and the general public had to take seriously or if it was just a limited protest phenomenon of the South. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) had organized a previous rally in Detroit in support of civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama but just a few people had showed up including James and Grace Lee Boggs. By announcing the upcoming protest in African American churches for several weekends in advance they expected to get a bigger crowd but were completely surprised when 250,000 people showed up from across the state and the nation. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a variation of the speech that would become world famous just two months later when he intoned, "I have a dream…" in Washington DC in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th and concluded, "With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!"

James and Grace Lee Boggs at first disagreed with the non-violent civil resistance tactics of Martin Luther King thinking they were ineffective and naive. They associated with the ideas and policies of Malcolm X regarding black nationalism which wasn't above responding to violence with violence. Grace would later reassess her ideas about King after reading more about his ideas about social justice which included struggles against racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism and began supporting non-violent revolution much as Malcolm X had reassessed his own ideas near the end of his life. She said, "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."

By the late 1960s and into the 1980s the form of revolution Grace and James supported took a different turn when they became active in building community organizations. Their 1969 pamphlet for the National Black Economic Development Conference entitled, "Manifesto for a Black Revolutionary Party" asked African Americans to assume responsibility to "assume the awesome responsibility of making a revolution to reorganize all the institutions of the country for the benefit of the entire society." In 1992, Grace and James established Detroit Summer, a collective to build "community gardens, organize community potlucks, clean streets, and create public art and murals."

In 1993, James Boggs passed away from cancer and Grace became involved with the Environmental Justice Movement, lecturing and drawing attention to the dumping of toxic waste in minority communities.

From political radical to civil rights activist, and then to pioneer in organizing economically independent, sustainable, and environmentally healthy communities, Grace Lee Boggs has led the way in changing minds and making what was once seen as radical ideas into the mainstream.

In 2013, the biographical film, "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs" was made. The film won the audience award for best documentary feature at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival. It was released nationally as part of the PBS POV Series in June 2014.

In the film Grace Lee Boggs said, "You begin with a protest, but you have to move on from there. But just being angry, just being resentful, just being outraged, does not constitute revolution. So many institutions of our society need reinventing. The time has come for a new dream. That is what being a revolutionary is."

The philosopher Hegel, whom Grace so admired, said this in 1820, which seems to have applied to much of her life: "To be independent of public opinion is the first formal condition of achieving anything great or rational whether in life or in science. Great achievement is assured, however, of subsequent recognition and grateful acceptance by public opinion, which in due course will make it one of its own prejudices"


Facing Reality, C.L.R. James, Cornelius Castoriadis, Grace Lee Boggs, Correspondence Publishing Committee, Detroit, 1958

Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, Grace Lee Boggs, James Boggs, (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1974 reissued with new introduction 2008

Women and the Movement to Build a New America, Detroit, National Organization for an American Revolution, 1977

Conversations in Maine: Exploring Our Nation's Future, James Boggs, Grace Lee Boggs, Freddy Paine, Lyman Paine, Boston, South End Press, 1978

Living for Change: An Autobiography, Grace Lee Boggs, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1998

The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, Grace Lee Boggs, Scott Kurashige, foreword by Danny Glover, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2011

Numerous articles in the Michigan Citizen newspaper

External Links:

American Dissidents: An Encyclopedia of Activists, Subversives, and Prisoners of Conscience, Volume 1, Kathlyn Gay (editor), ABC-CLIO, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1598847642

This article was first used for the Chinese American Heroes website. Click here to see that article.

Many thanks to Chinese American Heroes for the use of this article. This and other biographies and articles about Chinese American history can be found at: