As legendary activist and community organizer Grace Lee Boggs turns 100 years old today, we revisit an interview with her from our archives that has never aired before. In 2008, Amy Goodman interviewed Boggs, an activist based in Detroit, about her work in the civil rights, Black Power, labor, environmental justice and feminist movements for seven decades.
AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!, Grace Lee Boggs.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: It’s wonderful to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I was born above my father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, and my folks had come over from China. And I think I first understood the changes that were necessary in this world, because the waiters in the restaurant, when I cried, used to say, “Leave her on the hillside to die. She’s only a girl baby.” I think they said it somewhat as a joke, maybe not, but it made me I understand that being born female in this world was very different from being born male.
AMY GOODMAN: The year you were born?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: 1915, during World War I. It’s unbelievable, when I think—
AMY GOODMAN: How did the war affect your family?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I remember a picture that appeared on the front page of the Providence newspaper, the daily, of our family. I was on my father’s lap. They solicited you. They sold Liberty Bonds during that time. And to have a Chinese-American family buying Liberty Bonds was newsworthy. So that’s what I recall from World War I.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you leave Rhode Island?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: In 1924, my father had restaurants. He had a restaurant in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in Boston, in Providence. And in each one of these, one of my siblings was born. And then, in 1924, he came to New York and opened a restaurant at 49th Street and Broadway, and we moved to New York in 1924.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your political awakening.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, it began—I left. I got a Ph.D. in 1940, and in those days the idea of a woman, or let alone a Chinese-American woman, getting a job in a university was unthinkable. I mean, the department stores would come right out and say, “We don’t hire Orientals.” So, I went to Chicago.
AMY GOODMAN: What inspired you even to get a Ph.D.? Why did you go that route?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: It was a little bit like these days: People go to college, and they keep on going to school because there’s nothing else for them to do. They can’t get jobs and things like that. In those days, even department stores would come out and say, “We don’t hire Orientals.” And so, after I got my Ph.D., I decided to go to Chicago, where my—the person on whom I’d done my thesis, George Herbert Mead, had taught. And I got a job in the philosophy library for $10 a week, which wasn’t much money, but a lot of people in those days only made $500 a year or $1,000 a year. But it wasn’t enough to get a place to live, other than some—a little Jewish woman took pity on me and let me stay in her basement rent-free. And the only difficulty was I had to face down a barricade of rats in order to get to the basement. That made me rat-conscious, made me join a tenants’ committee against rat-infested housing, brought me into contact with the black community for the first time in my life, and enabled me to become part of the March on Washington movement organized by A. Philip Randolph.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about A. Philip Randolph, his significance, who he was.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, most people, I think—you know, it was a long time ago, it’s almost 65 years ago. But Randolph was the labor leader who had organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the ’20s. He was the first one, I think, to say that—you know, unless we go back to Frederick Douglass—in the modern world, that we had to get some sort of power in order to have very simple needs met. And so, in 1940, ’41, the Depression had ended for white workers, because of defense jobs, but blacks were still excluded from industry. So he called on blacks to march on Washington to demand jobs in defense plants. And thousands of blacks began to meet in the big cities. And Roosevelt, and Mrs. Roosevelt even, didn’t know what to do. And they kept demanding or trying to persuade Randolph to call off a march, and he refused. And at that time, FDRwas preparing for the war in Europe, and he could not afford the picture of or the news of thousands of blacks marching against racism in the United States. So they issued Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination against blacks in industry, in defense plants. And that changed so many things for the country, for black people and for me, because when I saw what a movement could do, I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
AMY GOODMAN: Why would the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the union of train conductors, be such a powerful place, such a powerful organizer?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Not of train conductors, of train porters.
AMY GOODMAN: Right, sleeping car porters.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, it wasn’t so much that their capacity—the union was a remarkable development, and I think Randolph, in organizing it, in establishing a black force as a national force in the labor movement, did an extraordinary thing. But it was the conjuncture of the war and the eyes of everybody in Europe and around the world upon this country that was—it was an opportunity which Randolph seized. And I think that ability to combine our domestic struggles with the view that the world has of us is really critical to developing a strategy. And that’s one of the things I learned from that. I think the whole world needs to learn more about that. And King knew how to do that also.
AMY GOODMAN: So, 1941, the March on Washington—most people think of the March on Washington as being 1963—
GRACE LEE BOGGS: 1963.
AMY GOODMAN: —led by King—against racism, against discrimination against African Americans in the defense plants.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: And for the hiring of blacks. I think one of the things that we’ve sort of not paid sufficient attention to is that a demand must also—must not only be against something, but for something.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the military was still not integrated.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, no, the military wasn’t integrated until 1948, Harry Truman. But that, again, was with the eyes of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did Eleanor Roosevelt fit into this picture?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: When?
AMY GOODMAN: Eleanor Roosevelt.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Eleanor Roosevelt, I’m sorry to say, like her husband, tried to get the march called off. Because we—for us today who have witnessed the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Malcolm, who lived through these years, it’s hard to understand how tightly woven in the Democratic Party was with the Southern senators, the Southern racists and Northern labor. It was a different kind of coalition. We don’t think about it that way these days.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you look at the power of organized labor, comparing it to 1941?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Today, I think that’s one of the things we have not dealt with seriously enough. If you look at the present and the campaign now for the Democratic nomination, that sense that workers had in the ’30s of themselves as a community, of themselves as a movement, has been lost in the wake of deindustrialization and globalization. And so, workers today feel like victims. The organized labor movement seems to have no power. And that’s a very, very important—I don’t know whether I should call it a development, but it’s something that we really haven’t paid serious enough attention to. I think that the competition now going on between Obama and Hillary is forcing us to pay more attention to that, when we look at how avidly she is courting the vote of white workers in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, white workers? Explicitly white, as opposed to workers?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, in the Midwest, we are very conscious that in 1968 the labor movement—not the leaders, but workers—voted for George Wallace. We have to understand that the militia movement has its base in the Midwest. Now, it could have involved all workers—I mean, black and white. But I think the fact that the upsurge, in terms of blacks, the hope that they see in Obama, that we will be able to go beyond race in looking at the future, has given a new quality to the black vote. I don’t think it’s just a racial vote, but it’s a very important vote. I mean, we are living in such an extraordinary period where we can learn so much from what is taking place.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, can you talk about C.L.R. James, a man with whom you had an alliance for several decades, his significance, the Trinidadian-born social theorist, journalist?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I met C.L.R. James for the first time in 1942. I was in Chicago. He had just come from working with sharecroppers in southeast Missouri. I went down to the train station to meet him, and he had two books with him: one, Marx’sCapital, and two, Hegel’s Science of Logic. And when he discovered that I knew German, that I had studied philosophy, we sat down on my little red couch in my basement. We began comparing the Hegel and Marx. And so, I worked with him for 10 years in New York, with him and Raya Dunayevskaya, who was born in Russia and became really a member of the Communist Party of the 1920s. And what we did was we studied Marx. We particularly studied the economic philosophical manuscripts that Marx had written in 1843, 1844. In fact, Raya discovered the Russian manuscript, and I translated the German of Marx’s—these essays. And they brought forward a humanist aspect of Marx, which people had sort of lost in the emphasis on the economist aspect. And then, most people don’t know that in 1915 Lenin, very, very depressed because the German social democracy had joined the war of the kaiser, Lenin began reading Hegel seriously for the first time. And he wrote these marvelous notes on Hegel and began to see how the movement had emphasized only the materialist aspect of Marx. And he began to say, “We cannot have such a sharp division between the ideal and the material.” And his mind was thinking, and that helped him through the early years of Soviet power. And you really need to read Lenin’s notes on Hegel in order to understand the struggle that he was undergoing in trying to lead the revolution, particularly after taking state power.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, C.L.R. James, what did your collaboration consist of?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, what we did, we called ourselves the Johnson-Forest Tendency.
AMY GOODMAN: The what?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Johnson-Forest Tendency. And our emphasis was on the humanist aspect of Marx and Lenin. We emphasized—you know, most people, when they read The Communist Manifesto—oh, excuse me—they don’t understand that last—that paragraph where Marx says—you know, Marx, by the way, in ’48 was only 29 years old. I mean, that’s a very interesting thing that I think about very often. But he said, you know, the constant revolutionizing of production is going to lead us to the place where we have to face, with sober senses, our conditions of life and our relations with our kind. Has this tremendous humanist dimension to him. He also said that be your payment high or low as a worker, your fragmentation, the fact that you have to do such degrading work for wages, it’s not a question of higher wages; it’s a question how your humanity is destroyed by capitalism. So most people think only of the economic aspects of Marx. And I think, through working with C.L.R. James and in the work of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, that aspect has remained with me.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to C.L.R. James? He was forced to leave the United States?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes, and he had come here in 1938 to—you know, the movement in those days was very confused about what we called the Negro question. And the question was a question of “black and white, unite and fight?” which was the line pretty much of the Communist Party, or did Negroes, as we would call—”we,” I get very confused sometimes, “we,” “they”—was there something in their independence struggle that we had not only to support, but had a significance bringing in a new quality to the revolutionary struggle? And it was that which Trotsky was trying to understand and had difficulty understanding. But the Trotskyist movement brought C.L.R. James to the United States to talk about that and to help the movement figure this out.
AMY GOODMAN: So, C.L.R. James was forced out.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, this was ’38. But he came here only to spend a short time. Then the war came, and so he continued, and he—what he did, he married an American woman. He had an American son. He loved this country. I mean, can you imagine growing up in Trinidad and coming to the United States and getting that sense this huge expanse and the potential, the possibilities for, you know, expansion of the human personality? It just absolutely excited him, and he wanted to stay here. And in 1950, ’52, they refused to renew his permission to stay here. And he left voluntarily, rather, to ultimately open the possibility that he could return.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you meet your husband, Jimmy Lee Boggs?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, one of the things that we were very proud of in the Johnson-Forest Tendency was that we not only—we not only talked about workers, the rank-and-file workers, but women, young people and blacks, at a time when most of the radical movement was only emphasizing the working class. And at the end of the war in Detroit, Jimmy was a worker at the Chrysler plant. Jimmy had come around to the Johnson-Forest Tendency, and everybody recognized that he was something that was quite unusual, in terms of having been born in the South and becoming a writer, because people in his mostly illiterate community couldn’t write, and he had to begin writing letters for them at a very early age, and someone who was really thinking and, in the most amazing sense, saw himself as part of the agricultural epoch, of the industrial epoch and of something that was now coming to a close, and was new beginning—a new epoch that was beginning. And so, I met him. I kept chasing him. He kept avoiding me. And he finally came to dinner one night and asked me to marry him, and I said yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t Kwame Nkrumah, the founding president of Ghana, also propose to you?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes, yes. I met Kwame in 1945. He had just graduated from Lincoln University. He wanted to go back and struggle—
AMY GOODMAN: In Pennsylvania, the historically black college in Pennsylvania?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes. He wanted to go back and work in Ghana. And he came, and we had a meeting. C.L.R. had a meeting with him at [inaudible]. And C.L.R. sent a letter to George Padmore. George Padmore was in England. He and Dorothy were in England. They had been giving advice and helping most of the leaders, the African independence leaders—Azikiwe in Nigeria, Kenyatta in Kenya. And anyway, so George groomed Kwame to go back to Accra in ’47, and by ’49 Kwame Nkrumah was holding such huge meetings that he was made leader of government business and incorporated into the establishment. And he became president in—I think that was 1951. Actually, Ghana gained its independence in ’57, yes. Anyway, and so he asked me to come to Ghana and marry him. And it was amazing, because it was inconceivable to me that I would go to a country where I didn’t know the language, I knew nothing about the history. But he had and many of the African leaders at that time had these grand ideas. He felt, I think—it wasn’t because I was so wonderful, I think. But I thought—you know, he eventually married a woman from Egypt. So, I think he saw himself as sort of uniting the continents—I mean, West Africa and East Africa. And actually, he was overthrown in 1966, when he went to Asia to try and do something about the Vietnam War. But people had very heady ideas of what could be accomplished in those days.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, when you met him with your husband, Jimmy Boggs, in Conakry?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: In Conakry. In 1968, Jimmy was on tour in Europe talking about the Black Power movement. And I wrote to Kwame and suggested that we have a meeting. So we went to Conakry and spent a week talking with him. And at the last, as we were toasting our goodbyes, he said to Jimmy, he said, “Jimmy, I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but if Grace had married me, we would have conquered all Africa.” And I think it’s—I tell the story, I think it’s worth telling, because it gives us a sense of the kind of illusions we had in the ’60s that solutions would come quickly. And it wasn’t only us in this country; it was people all over the world, leaders.
AMY GOODMAN: What about that? Here we are, 40 years later, 1968, 2008. What about the significance of that particular year, 1968, from the French uprising, the Tet Offensive, Dr. King, Robert Kennedy assassinated, the student uprisings across the country?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I can tell you about it as Jimmy and I reflected on it. And as the world—I think, for much of the world, and for many, many people who were in the movement, the violence of those days, the murder of John F. Kennedy, of—
AMY GOODMAN: In ’63.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: —Medgar Evers, of Malcolm, and then of King and Bob Kennedy, it was as if there was no hope. And because I think in those days we had the illusion that uprising, that rebellion, that defiance, that challenge was the solution. We had some idea somehow that the power structure would collapse under our assault. I think we had very little sense of how we had to build something new. And it’s taken us years to come to that recognition. And we’re very lucky in Detroit, because we were forced to come to that recognition, because we saw that changing the color of those in power didn’t change the deindustrialization.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you move to Detroit?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I moved to Detroit in ’53.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I had some personal reasons, and I had political reasons. The Johnson-Forest Tendency was publishing a newsletter, which we called Correspondence, and I went to Detroit to work on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your experiences with Malcolm X?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I first met Malcolm through his brother Wilfred. One of the first mosques is in—in fact, the mosque number one, I think, is in Detroit. And my sense of Malcolm and of the movement, I think, is very different from that of many people, partly because I thought of Mr. Muhammad not so much in terms of his bizarre concepts, but as someone who, like many Muslims, I think, today, have a sense of themselves as part of another development, that is not Western development, that there must be another way. And I heard Mr. Muhammad, you know, head of the Nation of Islam, make some of these speeches. I heard—I met Wilfred, Malcolm’s brother, for the first time. I began to host meetings at my home where he could talk to people and give them a sense that—most people think of the black movement in the ’60s mainly as a struggle for white rights, but for Muslims, for people who joined the Nation, it was a question of creating our own identity. It was more a part of the identity movements of the ’60s than it was just a rights movement. And I wanted folks to understand that. And so, I began working with Malcolm. I was one of the organizers of the Grassroots Leadership Conference, where he made his famous speech.
AMY GOODMAN: In Detroit.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: In Detroit.
AMY GOODMAN: That speech being?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: The speech that—
AMY GOODMAN: “Prospects for Freedom”?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: —was made on November 10th, 1963, a few weeks prior to the assassination of JFK, at which he made his remark, “The chickens have come home to roost,” which led to his suspension by Mr. Muhammad. And then, after he left the—after he actually left, forced out of the Nation, he was looking for what he should do. A group of us came here to New York to meet with him and asked him to come to Detroit to work with us, because we understood Malcolm’s hunger for new ideas, that he was a person always searching to transform himself. And so we met with him and asked him, and he said no, that he was going to be an evangelist, and he could not become an organizer with us.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean an evangelist?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: He felt that his voice was what needed to be heard. And so, he made the Hajj, and he made this enormous discovery that it’s not a question of your biology, that there are people of all races who are part of this sort of humanist journey that we’re making. And he came back to this country, and he said—I think most people don’t know that—he said, “I’m a revolutionary, and I’m a Muslim. That’s all I know about myself. Where I’m going to go, what ideology I’m going to develop, I don’t know. But I must crawl before I walk, I must walk before I run, and I don’t think I’ll have time.” This was in November or December of 1964. He was killed on February 21st, 1965. So we’ll never know what Malcolm would have become. He was a person, as all of us are, in the process of transformation.
AMY GOODMAN: How would you describe him, knowing him, meeting him, his personality? What struck you about him?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: He was one of the gentlest people I’ve ever met. People don’t know that. I can remember, after he was assassinated, attending a meeting, and I remember young people getting up and saying Malcolm stands for “by all means necessary.” They had taken that little bit of him and made it him. Which isn’t true. I mean, it’s not true of any of us, obviously, but it was particularly not true of Malcolm. And I think people who read the autobiography, to this day, understand that he was in the process of transformation. And I think that’s one of the most important qualities of a revolutionary, to be transforming yourself, to be expanding your humanity as events challenge you.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Grace Lee Boggs, what was your understanding at the time of who murdered Malcolm X? In fact, where were you in February when he was gunned down?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: On February 21st, 1965, it was a very snowy day in Detroit. I was picketing the church of Reverend Shoulders, who had said that militant blacks—he had made some terrible remarks about militancy among blacks. So we came back from the picketing, my husband Jimmy and I, and I got a call from Pat Robinson in New York that Malcolm had been assassinated. And we didn’t know who it was. We were not ready to attribute the murder to the Nation. So we tried to convene an international tribunal that would include Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. We thought there needed to be an investigation. It was very hard at that point, when black unity seemed the answer to so many of our issues, to think of something such disastrous happening inside the black community, that could actually have been—at the moment, at that time, we did not know that Malcolm, because of the conduct of Mr. Muhammad, had already switched from him in his heart.
AMY GOODMAN: And how would you compare what Malcolm X represented to Dr. King? You hadn’t personally met Dr. King, but you were certainly living between these two tendencies, movements.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, in Detroit we thought King was a little naive. We were very—I mean, Detroit is made up of many people who have come from the South. So we were very happy—we welcomed the Montgomery march. We felt—in fact, it was so interesting. Many blacks who had escaped from the South and come North and had considered that blacks in the South were sort of backward, because they hadn’t done the same thing, began to recognize that something might come from the South rather than from the North. But then, the issues that were facing people in the South were not the same as those that were facing us in the North, and so we had to redefine what was necessary in the North. And we saw the thing not so much as a question of democratic rights and political rights, obviously, but we—particularly for us in Detroit, Detroit was becoming very largely black, and the ruling power, the power structure, the downtown government, the school board, police department, the police chief and all that were still largely white. And we were feeling that we were being occupied by a foreign structure. And so we felt that. So Black Power was not just a thing to arouse people. It wasn’t just a slogan. It wasn’t so much an emotional appeal as it was when it was sounded by Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael on the march in Mississippi in 1966. It was more a necessity: We have got to have black people at the head of government, heading the police force, heading the school board in Detroit. And Black Power was a very—it was a very sort of real possibility. We didn’t know how it was going to come about, but because it was a real possibility, a real demand, we were able to test it. We were able to find out, when blacks came to power, that they couldn’t solve the problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you change your view of King over time?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Oh, tremendously. It was just amazing. I began to read his last speeches, and as the violence—you know, the violence in Detroit began to mushroom after the rebellions of 1967. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain the rebellions, very briefly.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: OK. What happened in the—beginning in 1964, riots, as they call them, or breakdown of law and order, began to happen in the urban ghettos. And the two biggest ones were the ones that occurred in Newark and in Detroit. And in 1967, Jimmy and I had been in the radical movement for a total of nearly 40 years, and we had never made the distinction between a rebellion and a revolution. And when the rebellion erupted in Detroit in ’67, we weren’t there, by the way. We were on vacation, even though we were allegedly responsible for it, amongst.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Among the six people called responsible for it.
AMY GOODMAN: By the authorities?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: No, by the press. There were six people who were sort of most identified with the Black Power movement in Detroit: Albert Cleage at the Shrine of the Black Madonna; the Henry brothers, Milton and Richard; his name escapes me at the moment, head of the Black Star bookstore; and Jimmy and I. And people—when the rebellion broke out, the press thought that it was a conspiracy. You know, that’s usually what the people think about breakdown of law and order. And for us, on the other hand, who, though the Marxist movement had made us think—they didn’t make us think, we thought that way—that rebellion was what was necessary to overthrow the power structure. And here we had this enormous rebellion, and all it created was first jubilation and then demoralization. And so, it forced us to try and make a distinction between rebellion and revolution. We understood that just standing up, just defying the power structure, can become very temporary; it can create demoralization, as well as hope; and that we needed to redefine revolution. And that’s when we wrote the Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century.
AMY GOODMAN: So you had the Detroit riot of 1967.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes. I’m urging you, please, to rethink it. I think language is so important in naming things. And the people of Detroit, particularly us activists, defined it as a rebellion, as a justified, as a righteous defiance of the authorities, of the resistance to an occupation army. And that’s why we called it a rebellion. And I think if you start there, you—a riot could happen for all sorts of reasons. It could happen over food. It could happen over someone getting beaten, an incident of police brutality. But a rebellion is something that is developing as an explosion coming out of the righteous grievances of a community of people. And so, it becomes important for us to name it as such so that we can see its shortcomings.
AMY GOODMAN: The Detroit rebellion—
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —of July 1967, a few months before, Martin Luther King had given that speech at Riverside Church, why he opposed the Vietnam War, that brought together not only the civil rights movement in this country, but the antiwar movement. The significance of that?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I think unless you go back to 1965, it’s hard to understand 1967 and that speech. In the spring of 1965, Martin Luther King was among those who celebrated the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which had come about as a result of Selma. And a few days after the celebration, Watts erupted. And King was astounded. And he flew to Watts. He tried to talk to the young people.
AMY GOODMAN: In California, Los Angeles.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: In California. They had never heard of him. And they were celebrating the riot, the rebellion, because they had forced themselves on the attention of the authorities. And King, King tried to figure out what was going on. So, the next year he moved to Chicago. He began talking to the young people, began trying to understand why he, himself, had not paid a sufficient attention to the demoralization, the desperation rising in the urban North. And he began doing a whole lot of very serious thinking about it. And it’s reflected in his last speeches, which people—most people don’t read. They don’t understand that in response to the rebellions taking place, he understood that something was wrong with the way that the West was concentrating on rapid economic development at the expense of community. He understood that we had to rethink the way that we had been looking at development. He understood that we had to rethink the way that we were looking at citizenship, that we’ve been thinking of citizenship in a very narrow sphere, as American, and that the world had changed, and we needed a concept of global citizenship in order to remain true, as he said, to the best in our own traditions.
AMY GOODMAN: How did King’s organizing in Chicago affect you in Detroit?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I didn’t even know about it. We were very provincial. We were very concentrated on our—I didn’t discover these things about King until quite late, when we began to try and solve the questions of Detroit and what was happening with our young people. And I read King and heard him say that what we need in our dying cities are direct action projects which enable young people to transform themselves and their surroundings at the same time. And I saw that that was a whole new concept of education that we had been drawn to by our own experiences in the creation of Detroit Summer.
AMY GOODMAN: What did Malcolm think of King?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, there’s a very famous picture of Malcolm going down to—it was Selma in the—let’s see, that was 1964, to meet with King. And King was in jail, and he couldn’t meet with King, but he met with Coretta. And he gave her his lessons and asked her to tell Martin that he was with him.
AMY GOODMAN: The effect of King’s assassination, April 4th, 1968, on you, on the movement in Detroit?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I’m ashamed to say that I really didn’t understand the significance of it. I was still very identified with Malcolm. Malcolm’s assassination was still affecting me more than Martin’s. But as the years have developed, and particularly after King’s birthday was declared a national holiday under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, I’ve been asked to speak quite often at January 15th celebrations. And that has forced me to do a lot more thinking about King, to go back and read him, to go back and read Gandhi, and to try and understand what it means to say, to think or to believe that we must be the change that we want to see in the world. That’s a very different way of looking at revolution, that we must be the change that we want to see in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, the revolutions of the past, and the ideology, still very deep in the mind of radicals, is that they are the ones who are responsible, therefore what we must do is attack them; that’s what we must do, is we must replace them with some of us. And the idea that Bush is only there because there are a lot of people who believe that the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, the Israeli occupation of Palestine are OK, because we need the fuel of the Middle East to maintain our way of life. I mean, to look at ourselves, to see how much agency we have, all of us, to say that lovingly and hopefully, I think, is the role of a revolutionary.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Detroit Summer? What is that?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, Detroit Summer is a very important part of our experience and of the experience of struggle, because—let me put it this way. In 1991, ’92, in the ’80s and the late 90s, we were marching against crack houses in Detroit. We called ourselves We the People Reclaim Our Streets, or WEPROS, for short. And we found that even though older people and children joined us, younger people were not joining us, people in their teens. And people said, “You know, that’s because young people don’t care.” And we said, “Well, no. How do we know they don’t care? If we don’t create something that they can become part of, we’ll never know. We’ll just have these judgments.”
So, in 1992, we started Detroit Summer as a multicultural, intergenerational program movement to rebuild Detroit from the ground up, which would involve young people planting community gardens, painting public murals, organizing poetry workshops. And we found not a huge number of young people, but enough young people so we could understand that something was happening among young people, that young people growing up in the asphalt jungles of the North needed this reconnection with the Earth, that they accepted that there was something that we had to do, that they felt the idea that we had to redefine what a city was, that that was possible, and that it was also necessary that we respirit our cities. People here in New York or in the secular left find it very hard to use the word “spirit.” We are very locked into a substance concept of spirit. We think of spirit as it’s got to be a soul, or it’s got to be a thing, and we’re too sophisticated to believe in that. We don’t understand that the idea of soul as a substance is just a very small part of what is the spiritual development of the human race, that when you think of spirit not as a substance, but as a way, as an activity, as a present participle, that the idea of not abandoning one’s humanity, of recapturing it in the face of dehumanization, as black people have done over the ages in the United States, and as people who have listened to their music recognize, and which they identify with, but which we haven’t adequately understood in the circumstances of the present time.
AMY GOODMAN: So explain exactly what Detroit Summer is. What do you do?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: OK. What do we do? Well, a relatively small group of young people plant community gardens, do workshops, talk about the city, paint public murals, create bike programs, alternative ways of education.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you think you would be doing this in 1941 or in—
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Absolutely not, never had been thought. I mean, it’s conditions—I quoted Marx from The Communist Manifesto. At a certain point, you’re forced to face with sober senses your conditions of life and your relations with your kind. And sometimes it’s too early to begin doing that. But sometimes you’re at a point in history, which we are now, where the opportunity to do that is great.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you see this country headed?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: We’re in a very, very profound crisis. It’s so obvious that no one in the power structure, either the corporate power structure or the political power structure, knows what to do or is willing to do what’s necessary in relationship both to global war and global warming. It’s so obvious that conditions are getting worse for the great majority of Americans. It’s so obvious also that we face a very serious danger from people who feel, see themselves only as victims. And we have to somehow, in a very loving way, help the American people to recover the best that is in our traditions. And that’s what King understood, and that’s what we have to understand. I don’t know whether you noticed the face of Patricia McFadden as I was speaking last night. She’s from Zimbabwe. She was so delighted to hear an acknowledgment of how we have advanced and maintained our comforts at the expense of the rest of the world. We have to acknowledge that. We have to find reconciliation both with ourselves and with the rest of the world. We have to find concrete ways to do that. We have to see struggle as very different from the way that we’ve seen it in the past, to see that the responsibility is ours, and not just those that of Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: And this presidential campaign, does it give you any hope?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: It creates opportunities for us to think differently in a way that has not been present up to now. I think that the battle between Hillary and Obama—I don’t know where it will go, but I think that it is helping us to understand that we cannot just see the maintenance of our middle-class way of life as our responsibility. I think that Obama’s history as a community organizer and the things he said 10 years ago about how the people in the inner cities must become not only the beneficiaries but the producers of change, that is a great strength. I think that electoral politics, being elected to the White House or not being elected to the White House, presents different challenges, and I don’t know how he’s going to—I don’t know him. I don’t know how he’s going to meet those.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, speaking of challenges, you are 92 years old.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: About to be 93.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ll soon be 93. Can you talk about aging?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, there’s a frailty involved. I have a sense that this, the speaking I’m doing this year, is kind of my last hurrah. It’s kind of a valedictory. So I have a responsibility that goes beyond that of younger people. I have to exercise whatever—take advantage of whatever moral authority I have, because of my involvement in the past, because of what I’ve learned, because of the people that I relate to and who relate to me, to say things that others don’t have the same responsibility or the opportunities to say. And so, I’m the only survivor of the four of us who carried on the conversations in Maine 40 years ago—Lyman and Freddy Paine and my husband, Jimmy Boggs. So I have an enormous responsibility to them, and so I have to keep strong as—keep my voice as strong as can be.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you maintain your memory?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I lose my memory of proper nouns. I’m not very good on initial consonants. But when you live the kind of life that I do, years like ’63 are not just years in my personal biography, they are years in the history of the country. Years like ’55, likewise. I mean, I—one of the things, I attended a workshop at the Left Forum on how do you maintain structure. Well, sometimes you maintain structure by a physical thing, and sometimes you just maintain structure by continuing to live in the same place. And I’ve lived in the same house and in the same city for 55 years, most of that time in the same house.
AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about frailty, becoming frail, what do you mean?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, you should see me trying to get around without help. When I see—I’m concerned that I’m going to fall. I had a fall for the first time in August of last year. And after I fell, I didn’t feel competent and confident driving. So I’ve given up driving. And when you give up driving, it means that other things happen. Each thing that happens to you, it’s connected with other things. And so, I need help getting up and down chairs. I do what I can.
AMY GOODMAN: Will you do more writing?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes. Monthly Review, I talked to the people at Monthly Reviewyesterday. They’re going to reprint Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century. I’m going to write a new introduction to it. My husband’s writings that were previously unpublished or out of print are being brought together in the James Boggs Reader, in which I make a small contribution. I write every week. I write a weekly column on all sorts of things in Detroit—the evolving of the meaning of revolution, how Detroiters point the way to 21st century cities, how African-American leadership is changing.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, what is your message to young people, or should I say younger people, and that would be most of the world?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, last night I ended my speech with a quotation from Frantz Fanon, that each generation coming out of obscurity must define its mission and fulfill or betray it. Younger people that I’ve met and related to and connected with over the last few years, who belong to what is called the millennial generation, born in the 1980s, who use the new informational communications technology the way that we use a IBMtypewriter, they have a self-defining quality. They have a way of connecting. They are creating all sorts of connections with each other. I think they have an enormous role to play in creating the future. I think that what I find in the present period is they would like to know about the past, and I think that there’s something—there’s some way—I read a thing on Common Dreams a couple weeks ago, and I wrote a column about it, and I entitled the column “Joining the Very Old with the Very New.” And this woman, from the Inuit population in the north of Canada, talked about how the people who are being threatened by the melting of Arctic ice are being told, “Go to the cities. Give up your way of life.” She’s just not willing to do that. They watch the hunting-and-gathering mode of production have its pleasures, its uses. And she said one of her sons is an air pilot. She says, “Somehow or other, we have to find a way to combine the very old with the very new.” And I think that’s our challenge, to recognize that the Industrial Age was relatively small, that it brought a tremendous advance in the economic productivity, in abundance, in material abundance, but it was at the cost of a lot of our own humanity, that we felt that to have a job and to get a paycheck was OK even if you were producing missiles, and to confront that, and to rejoice that we’re not doing that, that that was a tremendous cost not only to nature, not only to other people, but to our own humanity, to recognize that and to see ourselves as the creators of a new kind of life.
AMY GOODMAN: How do we recapture that lost humanity?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, we seize opportunities like the present. And I think the present crisis of the war and the occupation of Iraq, actually, the tremendous—I mean, what we’ve done to the world, what we’ve done to the people of Iraq, the countless deaths that we have caused, and what we have done also to our own soldiers, in destroying their humanity and forcing them to engage in such a criminal, illegitimate operation, first we need to acknowledge that and to ask a kind of forgiveness. That will reconcile ourselves with our own humanity, to begin with.
AMY GOODMAN: You said something interesting at the Left Forum. You said, “We have to live simply.”
GRACE LEE BOGGS: So others may simply live.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you repeat that?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I think we have—you know, I think that deep in our hearts we know that our comforts, our conveniences are at the expense of other people. I think King understood that when he said that we need to make a radical revolution against both militarism and materialism. We know that there’s something almost evil in the way that we chase after material goods, that we consume with such abandon. And until we face that, we’re not really honest. We’re not being true to who we are as human beings. And we are able to say that to children, that actions have consequences, but we are not saying it to ourselves. To acknowledge who we are and to see what we can become and to begin to create ways together whereby we make that journey is our salvation and also the salvation for the planet.
AMY GOODMAN: You have a core of—you had worked in a core of people. You have survived all of them. What does it mean to lose so many of those you were so close to? How do you emotionally deal with that?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: You know, when you’re the only survivor of so many people who have contributed so much to you, you owe a lot to them. And that’s one of the reasons why I continue. I think that that keeps me going, that I’m the one who’s telling the story.
AMY GOODMAN: And why do you think that is? What is your secret of long life?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, as I say at the conclusion of my book, my genes. My father lived to 95, and the day that he died he was out trying to get people to put benches along the walls or along the streets so old people could rest. My grandmother lived to 104, and they gave her three years: Because she had three sons, they said she was 107. So I have good genes. That’s number one. Now, for two, I’ve had an awful lot of luck in the number of people that I’ve met and whom I’ve been close to. And one of the things I think that’s my great good fortune is that I’m both a philosopher and an activist. And so, a combination of activism and reflection are that sort of pattern—is the sort of pattern of my life.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you have anything in particular to say to young women?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: What’s happening is very interesting, I think, at this time in terms of young women, and the older women, which is being unleashed by the Hillary Clinton campaign. My sense of the younger women that I’m relating to is that the struggle for gender equality, which was so much a part of the struggles of the older generation, are not a part of their struggle. There is a—the younger people I know who—the women—and mostly, by the way, many of the leaders of the present struggles are women—they sort of take their leadership and their humanity for granted. They are able, in an extraordinary way, to understand the shortcomings of men and to understand it’s not their fault and that somehow we must all rise together. So it’s a very different dynamic. It just was a very different dynamic. I remember Simone de Beauvoir being asked by some feminist of the ’60s why she related to Jean-Paul Sartre as she did. And she said, “You need to understand that we didn’t have a movement. I may have been a feminist. I may have been able to write The Second Sex. But I didn’t have people around me to give me the strength that you younger women have.” So, I mean, things change. I was a feminist at 15, but I was a lone feminist, and the younger people today take feminism for granted.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, how do you want to be remembered?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: This is very interesting. Here I am at the age of 92, going on 93, and people—and I’m being recognized and acknowledged. You called me on one of your programs a “legendary activist.” I thought, “That’s OK. I don’t mind being called a legendary activist.” I don’t want to be called a rock star. I don’t want to be called a celebrity. I think what you called me, a legendary activist, will do for now.
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much for being here. I’m looking forward to our next interview.
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