Grace Lee Boggs, a writer and community activist who spent seven decades marching, organizing, strategizing and inspiring new generations for a multitude of social causes — including the civil rights, feminist, labor and environmental movements — died Oct. 5 at her home in Detroit. She was 100.
Her death, of undisclosed causes, was announced by the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, which she set up in Detroit after her husband’s death in 1993.
Mrs. Boggs, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, earned a doctorate in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania, in 1940 and was drawn to left-wing and even radical politics from a young age. She aligned herself politically and intellectually with Marxists, revolutionaries and writer-activists such as C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya while working to improve social conditions for the poor in Chicago, New York and eventually Detroit.
Among those to cross her path was Kwame Nkrumah, who became Ghana’s first post-colonial president. In Mrs. Boggs’s 1998 memoir “Living for Change,” she claimed that he was so powerfully drawn to her that he proposed marriage. She declined, unenthusiastic about moving to a continent “where I was totally ignorant of the history, geography and culture.”
In 1953, she wed Chrysler auto worker and fellow activist James Boggs. They opened their Detroit home to visiting civil rights leaders, including Malcolm X, and the FBI kept a file on the couple’s activities.
In time, their residence became a salon for grass-roots activists of all stripes, including those striving for labor and women’s rights, housing discrimination,racial justice, and access to education.
As the auto industry fell into decline and as the city suffered devastating race riots in the late 1960s, the Boggses tried to save Detroit from blight and poverty. They founded multiple civic organizations dedicated to community development, including programs for senior citizens, gardens and music festivals.
A year before James Boggs’s death in 1993, they started Detroit Summer, an after-school program that aimed to empower local students to take an active role in repairing the city. Teenagers with Detroit Summer renovated blighted buildings and transformed vacant lots into community gardens. More than 20 years later, participants in Detroit Summer continue to paint murals, rebuild homes and work to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods.
In 2013, Mrs. Boggs started the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter elementary school in Detroit.
Mrs. Boggs’s life and work in Detroit gained greater national recognition with the 2014 public television documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” directed by filmmaker Grace Lee. The documentary, which traced Mrs. Boggs’s decades of activism, was part of Lee’s ongoing project to find and interview women who shared her name.
In a statement, President Obama praised Mrs. Boggs’s “passion for helping others and her work to rejuvenate communities that had fallen on hard times.”
Mrs. Boggs was born in Providence, R.I., on June 27, 1915. The family later relocated to New York, where her parents opened Chin Lee’s, a popular Chinese restaurant near Times Square.
She grew up in Queens and graduated from high school at 16. On scholarship, she received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from New York’s Barnard College in 1935.
Five years later, she completed her doctorate at Bryn Mawr College. Her studies ignited her lifelong interest in communist thinkers such as Marx, and she translated three of his essays, but she couldn’t find a job in academia.
“I had no idea what I was going to do after I got my degree in philosophy in 1940,” she told public television host Bill Moyers in 2007. “But what I did know was at that time, if you were Chinese American, even department stores would deny you. They’d come right out and say, ‘We don’t hire Orientals.’ So the idea of me teaching at a university and so forth was really ridiculous.”
Instead, she took a low-paying job at the University of Chicago library and lived in a rat-infested apartment on the city’s South Side.
“One day I came across a meeting of people protesting rat-infested housing,” she said in “American Revolutionary.” “That brought me in contact with the black community for the first time. I was aware that people were suffering, but it was more a statistical thing. And in Chicago, I was coming into contact with it as a human thing.”
She joined the South Side Tenants Organization, set up by an offshoot of the Socialist Workers Party, and became more deeply involved in local activism. She participated in the March on Washington movement in the early 1940s, formed to protest discrimination in defense plants and the armed forces.
Fearing mass rallies in wartime, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reached a compromise with civil rights leaders that prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry and government but that stopped shot of integrating the military.
From that experience, Mrs. Boggs wrote in her memoir, she “decided that what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was to become a movement activist in the black community.”
Settling in Detroit in 1953, she joined the staff of a Trotskyite newspaper and later held office jobs and was a public school teacher to subsidize her community activism.
At Detroit Summer and in her later work, Mrs. Boggs espoused a philosophy of activism that she called “visionary organizing.” Visionary organizers, she said, are wary of change at the legislative level; instead, they turn to neighbors and grass-roots networks to create a lasting effect on their communities.
In addition to speaking on college campuses, the Boggses co-wrote “Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century,” published in 1974, which examined lessons and strategies from uprisings around the world. In 2011, Mrs. Boggs collaborated with Scott Kurashige on “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century.”
Mrs. Boggs, who did not have children, left no immediate survivors.
She continued to identify herself as a “revolutionary,” always adapting to accommodate new causes and new groups of the marginalized fighting for change. Not long ago, she gave a crackling response to a reporter, writing for The Washington Post’s political blog the Fix, who sought Mrs. Boggs’s thoughts on “limited non-white participation in the larger Occupy movement.”
“To ask, ‘Where are the people of color?’ I think, is to look at the wrong idea,” Mrs. Boggs said. “That is a question of the past. I think the question we need to be asking ourselves, which the Occupy movement has raised, is: What are our obligations to each other and to the world? How inclusive are our institutions, and if they are not, why not? And why is it that the worst things and all the worst options do appear to be open to all?”