12 Interesting Facts About Activist Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs. Kyle McDonald/Flickr.com

Grace Lee Boggs isn’t a household name, but the Chinese-American activist made long lasting contributions to the civil rights, labor and feminist movements. Boggs died on Oct. 5, 2015, at age 100. Learn why her activism earned her the respect of black leaders such as Angela Davis and Malcolm X with this list of 10 interesting facts about her life.

Birth

Born Grace Lee on June 27, 1915, to Chin and Yin Lan Lee, the activist came into the world in the unit above her family’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I.

Her father would later enjoy success as a restaurateur in Manhattan.

Early Years and Education

Although Boggs was born in Rhode Island, she spent her childhood in Jackson Heights, Queens. She demonstrated keen intelligence at an early age. At just 16, she started studies at Barnard College. By 1935, she’d earned a philosophy degree from the college, and by 1940, five years before her 30th birthday, she earned a doctorate from Bryn Mawr College.

Job Discrimination

Although Boggs demonstrated that she was intelligent, perceptive and disciplined at a young age, she couldn’t find work as an academic. No university would hire a Chinese-American woman to teach ethics or political thought in the 1940s, according to the New Yorker.

Early Career and Radicalism

Before becoming a prolific author in her own right, Boggs translated the writings of Karl Marx. She was active in leftist circles, participating in the Workers Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the Trotskyite movement as a young adult.

Her work and political inclinations led her to partner up with socialist theorists such as C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya as part of a political sect called the Johnson-Forest Tendency.

Fight for Tenants’ Rights

In the 1940s, Boggs lived in Chicago, working in a city library. In the Windy City, she organized protests for tenants to fight for their rights, including living quarters free from vermin.

Both she and her mostly black neighbors had experienced rodent infestations, and Boggs was inspired to protest after witnessing them demonstrate in the streets.

Marriage to James Boggs

Just two years shy of her 40th birthday, Boggs married James Boggs in 1953. Like her, James Boggs was an activist and writer. He also worked in the automobile industry, and Grace Lee Boggs settled with him in the auto industry’s epicenter—Detroit. Together, the Boggses set out to give people of color, women and youth the necessary tools to effect social change. James Boggs died in 1993.

Political Inspirations

Grace Lee Boggs found inspiration in both the nonviolence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi as well as in the Black Power Movement. In 1963, she took part in the Great Walk to Freedom march, which featured King. Later that year, she hosted Malcolm X at her home.

Under Surveillance

Because of her political activism, the Boggses found themselves under government surveillance. The FBI visited their home multiple times, and Boggs even joked that the feds likely thought of her as “Afro-Chinese” because her husband and friends were black, she lived in a black area and centered her activism on the black struggle for civil rights.

Detroit Summer

Grace Lee Boggs helped to establish Detroit Summer in 1992. The program connects youth to a number of community service projects, including home renovations and community gardens.

Prolific Author

Boggs penned a number of books. Her first book, George Herbert Mead: Philosopher of the Social Individual, debuted in 1945. It chronicled Mead, the academic credited with founding social psychology. Boggs’ other books included 1974’s “Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century,” which she co-wrote with her husband; 1977’s Women and the Movement to Build a New America; 1998’s Living for Change: An Autobiography; and 2011’s The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, which she co-wrote with Scott Kurashige.

School Named in Her Honor

In 2013, a charter elementary school, opened in honor of Boggs and her husband.

It’s called the James and Grace Lee Boggs School.

Subject of Documentary Film

The life and work of Grace Lee Boggs were chronicled in the 2014 PBS documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” The director of the film shared the name Grace Lee and launched a film project about well-known and unknown people alike about this relatively common name that transcends racial groups.