Meet the Chinese American Woman Who Helped Lead the Black Power Movement

grace lee boggs

As Black Lives Matter continues to empower more people to come together against racial injustice, a Chinese American woman who served as an unprecedented leader in an earlier movement that sought the advancement of African Americans makes a notable inspiration.

Grace Lee Boggs was a prominent figure in Detroit’s Black Power movement. Image Screenshot: Cherry Sky Pictures / Center for Asian American Media via PBS

Her background: While born to a middle-class family, Grace Lee Boggs, as a woman of Asian descent, faced struggles in her early life which helped form the foundations of her activism.

  • She was born in Providence, Rhode Island on June 27, 1915 to immigrant parents from China.
  • Her Chinese given name was Yu Ping (玉平), which means “jade peace.”
  • She received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Barnard College (after winning a scholarship) in 1935 and her doctorate degree in the same discipline from Bryn Mawr College in 1940.
  • Facing employment barriers after graduation, she took a job at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library that paid a dismal $10 per week.
  • Detached from her middle-class upbringing, she gradually found satisfaction in a modest lifestyle, noting that it “gives you a freedom to make life choices that is lost when you begin to think you need everything that is for sale.”
  • Her knowledge and experiences in the first 25 years of her life became the bedrock of what would become a commitment to a life of revolution.
Grace Lee Boggs at her home in Detroit on Feb. 21, 2012. Image via Kyle McDonald (CC BY 2.0)

What she did: Grace became a leader of the Black Power movement, an offshoot of the Civil Rights movement which emphasized racial pride, economic growth and the establishment of political and cultural institutions for African Americans in the 1960s.

  • Before focusing on the plight of African Americans, she collaborated with Marxist humanist theorists C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya to form the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a radical left tendency that tackled marginalized groups such as women, the youth and people of color, among other issues.
  • In 1953, she married James Boggs, an African American auto worker, and together they took their own political direction.
  • She eventually became a part of the African American community in Detroit, gaining momentum as a leader in the local Black Power movement alongside her husband.
  • In 1963, she joined the Great Walk to Freedom march — which featured Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and hosted Malcolm X at her home.
  • Grace and James wrote “Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century” in 1974; in 1998, Grace published “Living for Change,” an autobiography; and in 2011, she co-wrote “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century” with professor-author Scott Kurashige.
  • Due to their political activism, the couple was frequently visited by the FBI, which described her in some files as “probably Afro Chinese,” according to NPR.

 

How Asian Americans remember her: While Grace spent most of her life fighting for the African American population, the Asian American community sees her as an icon.

  • “Whether she likes it or not, she is an icon for Asian Americans. The fact that she’s an Asian American role model who doesn’t fit a mold, that’s really nice,” Grace Lee, a Korean American filmmaker — unrelated to her — told NBC News.
  • Lee, who featured her in a 2014 documentary, added: “She says too, there came a point where all these people were asking her to speak about the Asian American movement, and she says she discovered her own ignorance, because she was in Detroit. And I think a lot of these struggles had similar themes.”
  • After her husband’s death in 1993, Grace went on to continue her activism, though she also gave herself the “time to recreate yourself, to discover who you are.”
  • In 2005, she started writing for the Detroit-based Michigan Citizen — until she turned 98.
  • In 2013, she helped start the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter school that seeks to “nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.”
  • She died at the age of 100 on Oct. 5, 2015, becoming a legendary figure in African American history.

Feature Images via PBS (left) and Kyle McDonald (right; CC BY 2.0)

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