Grace Boggs has been protesting for progressive change in America since 1941, when she became involved in the March on Washington Movement (which pushed for the desegregation of U.S. armed forces). Since then, she has participated in most of the defining social movements of the 20th century—including the labor, environmental, women’s and civil rights movements.
Boggs is the author of Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (with her husband James Boggs), Women and the Movement to Build a New America and Living for Change: An Autobiography. In 1995, friends and associates of Boggs and her husband founded The James & Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in Detroit. The nonprofit organization honors and continues the couple’s legacy as movement activists and theoreticians by engaging in diverse community building activities including youth leadership development, urban agriculture and environmental justice.
In These Times corresponded with Boggs, now 93, and members of the Boggs Center earlier this year.
In 25 words or less, what makes you so special? (Keep in mind that humility, while admirable, is boring.)
I’ll soon be 93 and still have most of my marbles.
What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?
Shamelessly plug a colleague’s project.
On the east side of Detroit, within walking distance of the Boggs Center, 79-year-old Lillie Wimberley and her 45-year-old son, Michael, have created the Hope District, a project to engage community residents in ongoing activities that will provide affordable housing and employment for everyone. The district includes “Club Technology,” an entertainment center for meetings and parties and a training center for construction, the culinary arts and computers; community gardens where residents grow their own food; storefronts for local businesses; and a corner lot where residents are encouraged to post their dreams.
Describe your politics.
I believe that at this pivotal time in our country’s history—when the power structure is obviously unable to resolve the twin crises of global wars and global warming, when millions are losing their jobs and homes, when Obama’s call for change is energizing so many young people and independents, and when white workers in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania are reacting like victims–-we need to be struggling to define and begin making the next American revolution.
The next American revolution will be radically different from the revolutions that have taken place in pre- or non-industrialized countries like Russia, Cuba, China or Vietnam. As citizens of a nation that had achieved its rapid economic growth and prosperity at the expense of African Americans, Native Americans, other people of color, and peoples all over the world, our priority has to be correcting the injustices and backwardness of our relationships with one another, with other countries and with the Earth.
This vision of an American revolution as transformation is the one projected by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his April 4, 1967 anti-Vietnam war speech. Speaking for the weak, the poor, the despairing and the alienated, in our inner cities and in the rice paddies of Vietnam, he was urging us to become a more mature people by making a radical revolution not only against racism but against materialism and militarism. He was challenging us to “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
King was assassinated before he could devise concrete ways to move us towards this revolution of transformation. Forty years after his assassination, in our Detroit, City of Hope campaign, we are engaged in this “long and beautiful struggle for a new world”––not because of King’s influence (we identified more with Malcolm)––but because we have learned through our own experience that just changing the color of those in political power was not enough to stem the devastation of our city resulting from de-industrialization.
Our campaign involves rebuilding, redefining and re-spiriting Detroit from the ground up: growing food on abandoned lots, reinventing education to include children in community-building, creating co-operatives to produce local goods for local needs, developing Peace Zones to transform our relationships with one another in our homes and on our streets, replacing punitive justice with Restorative Justice programs to keep non-violent offenders in our communities and out of prisons that not only misspend billions much needed for roads and schools but turn minor offenders into hardened criminals.
Despite the huge differences in local conditions, our Detroit-City of Hope campaign has more in common with the struggles of the Zapatistas in Chiapas than with the 1917 Russian Revolution because it involves a paradigm shift in the concept of revolution.
This paradigm shift requires viewing revolution not as a single event but as an extended process. It involves all of us, from many different walks of life, ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientations, faiths and generations. At the same time, based on our experiences in Detroit, I see the Millennial generation, born in the 1980s, playing a pivotal role because their aptitude with the new communications technology empowers them to be remarkably self-inventive and multi-tasking and to connect and reconnect 24/7 with individuals near and far. As Frantz Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth: “Each generation, coming out of obscurity, must define its mission and fulfill or betray it.”
What has kept you active all these years?
Thinking dialectically, i.e. recognizing that every practical step forward creates new and more challenging contradictions.
- Media [Scott Kurashige, member of the Boggs Center.]
Name a journalist whose work you read religiously. Why?
I don’t always agree with David Brooks, but America needs more smart conservatives. The notion that politics should be a perpetual war between two camps with fixed ideologies inhibits our ability to think creatively about the real challenges we face.
What social networking devices do you use (Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Del.icio.us, etc)?
I have only used MySpace on occasion, mostly to hear a song by a band I’ve just heard about. I’m 37 years old, and I’ve finally fallen inescapably behind the cutting edge of the information revolution.
Scan through our archives. Give us two stories that we should re-read today.
What’s a mistake the mainstream media always makes that really gets under your skin?
In its attempt to present “two sides” of an issue, the mainstream media generally reinforces the narrow parameters of debate that serve to uphold the status quo.
[Grace Lee Boggs]
My political awakening occurred when…
My political awakening took place 67 years ago, when I became involved in the 1941 March on Washington Movement and discovered the power of a movement to bring about massive changes in the life of a people. At the beginning of World War II, thousands of blacks all over the country were mobilizing in response to a call from A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters President, to march on Washington to demand jobs in defense plants, When President Roosevelt pleaded with Randolph to call off the march and Randolph refused, FDR was forced to issue Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination at defense plants.
Who is your favorite elected leader, past or present? Why?
My favorite elected leader is Barack Obama because he has the audacity to articulate the hope for fundamental change that is stirring in millions of Americans all over the country.
Which conservative politician has pleasantly surprised you the most?
The conservative politician who has pleasantly surprised me the most is Ron Paul, who never wavered from his anti-war position during the Republican debates.
[Julie Rosier, a Detroit artist and activist who founded the Story Owners Collective in Detroit.]
What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were young?
I was an actor in Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit when I was 13 and 14 years old. The founder of the group saw us as a professional theater company, and he told us to always work like a professional. I think this advice has helped me blur the division between amateur and professional and gives me confidence to pursue what I feel strongly about in a serious manner.
What is your favorite childhood memory?
I had several imaginary friends when I was young. One day I asked my parents to take me around the neighborhood to look for my invisible friend. My dad consented and, in a sincere—as opposed to patronizing––way, he took my five-year-old hand and walked me door-to-door, asking whoever answered the door if my friend Susan lived there. Looking back, I am so impressed that my dad spent that hour indulging and participating in my imaginary world.
Fill in the blanks: “____ is sexy; ___ is sexier”:
Bonding in good times is sexy; staying connected in a human way through conflict is sexier.
Have you ever had any run-ins with the law that you’d like to share?
I was riding the subway back to Brooklyn at about 1 a.m. from a very long day in Manhattan. Nose-deep in a book, I heard a police officer saying over and over, “Miss, please step off the train.” He was holding the door open and keeping the train from moving.
I finally tore myself away from my book to see what all the commotion was about and realized that he had been yelling at me. I couldn’t believe it. He made me get off the train and the train pulled out of the station.
It turns out that it’s against the law to take up more than one seat on the subway. Since my legs were up on the seat next to me, I faced punitive measures. Even though the train was practically empty, he gave me a $50 ticket.
[Kerry Vachta, member of the Boggs Center.]
What’s a lifestyle choice you’ve made recently to be greener?
When I came back to Detroit, I found an apartment about six blocks from work and one block from the laundromat. I use the car about once per week for groceries and errands––which I combine into a single trip––and Boggs Board/City of Hope meetings.
What are your prejudices? What are you doing to overcome them?
My brother has a serious chronic mental illness. I work hard to expand our understandings of ‘normal’, break down barriers limiting where people who don’t fit those ‘norms’ fit in our society and make sure the supports and resources are available as needed. But when I tell someone about his illness, I often find myself following up by mentioning that we’re adopted and have no biological relationship out of fear that they’ll behave or think differently toward me otherwise. Unfortunately, it’s not unreasonable to expect that reaction—but I should be beyond worrying about what ignorant people who would stigmatize my brother would think of me because of that relationship. What I’m doing about it is talking about it-–more often, more openly-–more actively engaging in advocacy and resisting falling into the patterns that play into the discrimination and stigma he and others still face.
Have you ever had any run-ins with the law that you’d like to share?
I was an NGO representative at the UN conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in ’92. Following a series of actions protesting George H.W. Bush’s stonewalling the rest of the planet by refusing to sign any meaningful agreements, I was part of a group of students who held a five-day fast followed by a mock trial in the courtyard of the UN compound. UN Police went through and removed each of our credentials. Those of us from the United States, Canada or Europe were politely, if firmly, escorted one-by-one out of the building and to the street and barred from re-entry. The folks from the Southern hemisphere were dragged through the courtyard, over broken glass and into the security offices in the back of the compound.
The irony of the difference in our opportunities and treatment in response to our protesting the difference in our opportunities and treatment would have been rich if it hadn’t been so terrifying at the time. I found out that our comrades and friends made it out OK. Definitely brought the urgency of the global inequities we were striving to address home…
What is the last, best book you have read?
I’m halfway through an amazing book called The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It is a graphic novel that recently was turned into a movie. The author/artist uses simple but extremely beautiful pictures to depict her life as a young girl dealing with revolution, war and fundamentalism in Iran. I think telling one’s own story in such a compelling way has huge social change potential.
Guilty television watching pleasure?
I grew up without a television and still hardly watch any TV, but after a co-worker gave me the DVD of a couple seasons of the British version of “The Office,” I was addicted. I think the writing is very smart and funny. I also like that the series focuses on the interpersonal dynamics of the workplace as the most pivotal aspect of a job environment.
What is your favorite work of art or artistic movement? Who is your favorite artist?
One painting that comes to mind is a depiction of Joan of Arc, done by Jules Bastien-Lepage in 1879. I have always been intrigued by the story of this young French woman who felt called by God to lead the army. She inspires me in the way she transcended gender expectations as she followed her calling. Bastien-Lepage really captures the focus and determination in her facial expression as she walks away from the small cottage of her childhood.
What person deserves to be a lot more famous than they are?
Anna Deavere Smith is an actress who creates one-woman shows by interviewing people, and then becoming them on stage. Her first plays focused on race, as she interviewed people who were engaged in race riots of Brooklyn and LA. She uses theater to study the American character, paying specific attention to language and listening between the lines for what people really think and feel. Then she brings these findings to life on stage.
[Will Copeland, a Detroit poet active in the city’s U.S. Social Forum Committee.]
What is the last, best book you have read?
“This Bridge Called Home” is a powerful anthology in response to issues of gender and race. It is a powerful international anthology written mostly by women of color that calls forth spiritual and cultural activism. The book is well-edited and filled with powerful visions of transformation. The book recognizes that there is a freedom that can come at the margins that allow us to question and redefine the limits and categories society places on us. It centers women of color in freedom struggles and explodes the limits of identity politics, much less representational or electoral politics.
Give is some example of pop culture that you love and make the case that is it subtly or subversively leftist.
Jay-Z: “How you gon’ rate music that thugs with nothing relate to it? I help them see their way through it… Not you.” From Jay-Z I have learned the value of helping a sister or brother “see their way through,” which means being able to kick it and relate to a variety of folks. I do not want to become one of those who can judge, criticize or “rate” others without being able to relate to ‘em, inspire, break bread. I always get inspired listening to “Blueprint,” “American Godfather” (remix album), or “Hard Knock Life.” I think about my own ability to hang with those who are oppressed and work with them on creating systems of survival/ well being. Another Jigga quote: “I’m like Che Guevera with bling on. I’m complex. I’m not an angel with wings on.”
What is your favorite work of art or artistic movement? Who is your favorite artist?
Most days I listen to only Michigan music while commuting to and from work. There is something brilliant brewing now in Detroit urban arts. There is an amazing historical continuity between poetry, hip-hop, soul and slam poetry in the city. For many of these artists, love for the D or love of being from the D is a tangible quality you can feel in their bodies of work and live performances. My favorites include: Invincible, Versiz, Blair, Monica Blaire, Slum Village, Big A, Black Milk, Phat Kat, Diamond Dancer, Vievee Francis.
Legendary Activist Grace Lee Boggs Reflects on Newark, Detroit Uprisings
Joining the discussion from Detroit is Grace Lee Boggs, a philosopher and an activist who has lived in Detroit for 54 years. She was a central figure in the civil rights and Black liberation movements. She just turned 92 and continues to be at the forefront of struggles to rebuild communities in Detroit and rethink radical politics. [includes rush transcript]
Joining the discussion from Detroit is Grace Lee Boggs, a philosopher and an activist who has lived in Detroit for 54 years. She was a central figure in the civil rights and Black liberation movements. She just turned 92 and continues to be at the forefront of struggles to rebuild communities in Detroit and rethink radical politics.
- Grace Lee Boggs. 92-year old activist who has been pivotally involved with the civil rights, black power, labor, environmental justice, and feminist movements. She has lived in Detroit for 54 years was active in the Black power movement in the years leading up to the rebellion of 1967. In 1992 she co-founded the Detroit Summer youth program to rebuild and renew the city. Grace Lee Boggs currently works with the Beloved Communities Initiative and writes for the weekly Michigan Citizen. Her autobiography “Living for Change” was published in 1998.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us from Detroit is Grace Lee Boggs, philosopher and activist who’s lived in Detroit for fifty-four years. She was a central figure in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements. She just turned ninety-two and continues to be at the forefront of struggles to rebuild communities in Detroit and rethink radical politics. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Grace Lee Boggs.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Detroit forty years ago. As Newark, the rebellion, quieted down, why did Detroit erupt?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, Jimmy and I, my husband, my late husband Jimmy and I, were in California, actually, when Detroit exploded in July. But prior to our leaving for vacation, Jimmy had talked to the people who were with us in the Inner City Organizing Committee, that something was bound to happen and that we should try and stay away from it, because there was a climate in Detroit, which meant that things had to explode.
Two things were happening. One, young people were being frisked and stopped and frisked by the police, whom they considered an occupation army. At the same time, beginning in the early ’60s, a number of us had been saying that as the population of Detroit was becoming majority black, it was wrong for the city to be run almost exclusively by whites. The city council was almost—there was one black person on it. The school board was white. The school superintendent was white. And that was not in the tradition of cities being run by the ethnic group, which is becoming the majority, so this idea that there was a certain justice about Black Power and also a sense of outrage by young people at the treatment that they were given by the police.
Another thing that was also happening in Detroit was that automation had come to the plants, and young people were feeling that they were being made expendable and that there was no longer any future for them. And so, the rebellion was also a cry for help, for understanding by these young people that something very fundamental was happening that required change.
And I think to understand the depth of the roots of what happened helps us to get beyond seeing it as a riot and helps us to see that there were issues raised there that we still face. In other words, Genarlow Wilson would not be criminalized for oral consensual sex with a young woman if it were not for the fact that our society does not know what to do with these young people, what perspective, what vision to offer them, and all we do is criminalize them. So we have this exploding prison population. We have the equivalent of martial law on a day-to-day, 24/7-hour basis in our cities, because we have not heard the cry for help by young people in 1967.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Grace Boggs, I want to ask you, in terms—you mentioned the plants, and, of course, a very big difference between Detroit and Newark was the enormous importance of the automobile industry to that city, the heart-blood in those days of American capitalism, and many, many black workers who had moved, especially during World War II, into the plants, and there was a resurgence of a whole new radical labor movement subsequent to that—the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and other groups that developed. Could you talk about the impact of the rebellion on sort of the political consciousness of the black community?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, what was happening—you see, during World War II, for the first time as a result of the March on Washington in 1941, black workers were being—had gotten jobs in the plant and had acquired enough seniority and wages to buy a home and send their kids to college, kids who became actually the SNCC activists in the Civil Rights Movement. But this was drying up for young people, and what was in front of us was a shrinking working class, rather than an expanding working class. And this required a whole new concept of education. It required a whole new concept of justice. It required a whole new concept of what is the purpose of work.
Detroit had been the national, international symbol of industrialization and successful industrialization for the first half of the twentieth century. Now, it was becoming de-industrialized, and we had not yet thought through creating the kinds of infrastructure that are needed for a de-industrializing society. For cities in the twenty-first century, we have to become very different from what was possible, both ecologically possible and in every other respect during a period of expanding industry. And I think it’s within that historical perspective that we have to understand ‘67, not only in terms of white power versus black power or black power versus white power, but in terms of the transition that the world and the United States and Detroit, in particular, is undergoing. I think it’s within that context that we can get beyond the criminalization, the sort of martial law-ization of our society at the present time.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, in Newark twenty-six people were killed in the rebellion, twenty-four of them African American, then a fire captain and a policeman. In Detroit, forty-three people were killed. How did that happen? Were there indictments? There were none in Newark.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: There were not indictments. And the question of—I mean, the question—I think what I hear, Amy, is that we think that the question of justice is a question of whether we indict or whether we prosecute. And I think that we’re reaching another stage, where we have to see the question of justice in terms of how do we rebuild our communities, how do we restore our people, how do we as Americans with this terrible crisis that we’re in now, not only in our cities but across the world, how do we become human beings, how do we take another leap in our evolution as human beings.
AMY GOODMAN: You are a Chinese American woman. Your father ran a Chinese restaurant not far from here in Times Square in New York. And you graduated in 1935, got your PhD in 1940 from Bryn Mawr. How did you end up getting involved with black radical politics?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, the story—I think folks have to understand that, first of all, in 1940, when I got my PhD, Chinese Americans couldn’t even get jobs in department stores. They would come right out and say—Macy’s would come right out and say, “We don’t hire Orientals.” And it was under those circumstances, when the question of race was so primary in this country, that I was looking for a job. Not thinking—thinking it was ridiculous to think I might get one at a university, I began to find a way to make links with the black movement, especially through the March on Washington Movement, which was led by A. Philip Randolph in 1941. I decided I wanted to make movement politics my life at that time. And it’s been my life for the last sixty-five years.
AMY GOODMAN: 1941. I don’t think people know about a march on Washington or certainly don’t know who A. Philip Randolph is.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I know. And really, I’m not—I think maybe it’s important to know, because up to 1941 and the March on Washington Movement, which was led by A. Philip Randolph, who was a founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, blacks were not able to get the kinds of jobs that would provide them with any security, with any seniority. The defense plants—I mean, the Depression in 1940 had ended for white workers, because the war production was booming, but not for black workers. And it was under those circumstances that the movement of blacks to get jobs, which took the form of a challenge—of the projection of a march on Washington, which scared Franklin D. Roosevelt to death. I’m not quite—I mean, he was forced to issue Executive Order 8002, that we began to have a black working class. And then, very soon, because the technology of World War II was introduced to the plant, that future began to close down for black young people.
And I think it’s necessary to understand that the first rebellion took place in Watts in 1965, in July 1965—in August, actually, 1965, shortly after the signing of the Voting Rights bill, which came out of Selma. And a few days after that, the Watts erupted, and Martin Luther King went to Watts, found that the kids had no idea what he had been doing, and they were very proud that they had erupted and forced people to recognize that they existed. And in response to that, King moved to Chicago in 1966 to listen to these young people, and he came to the conclusion at the end of his life that what we needed was to listen to them and understand that the age of just expanding economically and technologically had come to an end, or we needed to bring it to an end and understand how it had created and had destroyed community and denied participation to so many people. And so, we were at a watershed in human history, and that’s where we are today. And I think that’s the context in which we have to look at what happened in ’67.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, in relationship to when you say that the young people were proud of the fact they had forced a recognition of themselves, the role of the media, of the news media, in terms of—the Kerner Commission, obviously, after Detroit and Newark, said that the—blamed the media for, one, failing to at all deal with racism in American society, but also found instances where reporters actually fabricated violent events during the rebellions to make things look even worse than what they were. Your analysis of the media’s impact on public consciousness?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: But they were pretty bad. I think if—not to acknowledge that they were pretty bad. I’m just thinking, for example, Mack Avenue, up the street from where I live, before the rebellion, we had a whole lot of small stores, drugstores, hardware stores, small restaurants. Now, it’s a complete wasteland. And many sections of the city were looted and burned. I mean, it was a very difficult and painful period. But out of the pain, what we got out of the pain was a kind of black political power within the cities. But the blacks who came to power in the cities had the same sort of institutions to administer. So it wasn’t a question of changing from white to black, but changing the whole infrastructure, because the rebellions represented this cry from young people to be of use in some way, to have a society in which, instead of being outsiders, they were part and parcel of belonging and creating and being of use.
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, actually, in some ways, we’ve gone full cycle but up to another level. I mean, we went from the kind of blatant brutalization, of white supremacy and racism. We then organized ourselves and elected two black mayors. We haven’t—none of my children, for instance, have ever grown under white people ruling in Newark. They don’t even know what that is, you understand? And so, we can be proud of that. But at the same time, after we had our two domestic kind of mayors, who compromised relentlessly with corporate power, you understand, now we’ve come full circle and come to—
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Let me ask you a question, Amiri. Do you think that we have challenged and criticized and evaluated Black Power sufficiently?
AMIRI BARAKA: Have we? No, no, but I’ve been doing it for—I’m sorry.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: When are we going to do it?
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, I’ve been doing it for almost thirty-seven years. I mean, having two black mayors there, Sharpe James and Ken Gibson, I was probably their most relentless critic all the time. But now we have somebody who doesn’t compromise with corporate power, but who represents it. So that’s the difference. We’ve moved—
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, so do you think it’s a question of changing an individual? You know, for changing from Gibson to Booker?
AMIRI BARAKA: No, you have to get an individual who’s willing to change the system. You have to get an individual who’s willing to actually struggle with the system to change it. As long as you have people who—
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I mean, what do we mean by “struggling with the system”? How—when are we going to be—
AMIRI BARAKA: To make substantive changes, to make infrastructure changes.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: No, when will we begin to understand that we have to create new infrastructures, new forms, so that you can—
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, but you can only do that through people, you see?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: But you’re not going to do it from people at the top. We’re going to do it from people at the bottom.
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, you have to mobilize the whole community. But what I’m saying is that people at the top became accommodated to being in power and not changing.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes, but maybe what we’ve done—maybe what we’ve—yes, but you see, we’ve put so much emphasis on taking over the power structure, and we became prisoners of it, because the power structure—
AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the discussion after the show, and then we’ll broadcast that. I want to thank you so much for being with us, Grace Lee Boggs, Amiri Baraka and Larry Hamm.
“An Opportunity to Look at Ourselves and Reorder Our Priorities”–Legendary Activist Grace Lee Boggs on the Ailing Economy, the Legacy of Dr. King and the 2008 Race
As we head out of Dr. Martin Luther King Day into the South Carolina Democratic primary, the Democratic presidential contenders repeatedly invoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s legacy in their campaigns. We speak with Grace Lee Boggs, the legendary 92-year-old civil rights activist, who has been pivotally involved with the civil rights, black power, labor, peace, environmental justice, Asian American and feminist movements. Bogg recalls King’s legacy in terms of “a radical revolution of values against the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to this week, coming out of the federal holiday marking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s birthday and the Democratic presidential contenders vying for a crucial win in the South Carolina primary this coming Saturday. South Carolina has the sixth-largest African American population in the country. About half the state’s registered Democrats are African American.
Senators Clinton, Edwards and Obama all paid homage to the revered civil rights leader. Senator Obama spoke at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday. This is the church where Dr. King had once been a pastor.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: He led with words, but he also led with deeds. He also led by example. He led by marching and going to jail and suffering threats and beatings and being away from his family. He led by taking a stand against a war, knowing full well that it would diminish his popularity. He led by challenging our economic structures, understanding that it would cause discomfort. Dr. King understood that unity cannot be won on the cheap, that we would have to earn it through great effort and determination.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Barack Obama in Ebenezer Baptist Church, a packed crowd at Dr. King’s church on Sunday night.
Grace Lee Boggs is a ninety-two-year-old activist who has been pivotally involved with the civil rights, black power, labor, peace, environmental justice, Asian American and feminist movements. She was born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1915. After receiving her Ph.D. in philosophy, she came to Detroit in 1953, where she married African American labor activist Jimmy Boggs. In 1992, she co-founded the Detroit Summer youth program to rebuild and renew her city. Her autobiography, Living for Change, was published in 1998.
Grace Lee Boggs writes a weekly column for the Michigan Citizen. Her latest piece looks critically at the promise of Barack Obama against what she sees as the real legacy created by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Grace Lee Boggs recalls this legacy in terms of “a radical revolution of values against the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” In a 2004 article commemorating Dr. King, Grace Lee Boggs writes his “prophetic vision is now the indispensable starting point for 21st-century revolutionaries.”
Grace Lee Boggs joins us now from Detroit, Michigan. Welcome to Democracy Now!
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I’m glad to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, as we come out of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I mean, you were there through the movement, through his assassination, through the fight to get even this day marked as a federal holiday, which was a tremendous battle. One of the last states to recognize it was the one, well, where the Democratic primary is coming up this Saturday, in South Carolina, the first place where there will be a majority of African American voters in a primary. And that’s the Democratic primary in South Carolina.
First, your thoughts on Dr. King and how this election year relates to his legacy—or doesn’t?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I think that when I recall previous celebrations of Martin Luther King’s birthday, there’s a fierce urgency about this year, in part because it’s also the fortieth anniversary of his assassination. But there’s a planetary emergency. There’s a calamity of our war, of the occupation of Iraq. There’s the tanking of the economy. And all these things are coming together at a time when King’s call for a radical revolution of values against not only racism, but materialism and militarism, has a resonance that it hasn’t had in previous years. In previous years, the holiday was almost turning into a shopping day. But this year, I think we have the opportunity really to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: what does King’s legacy mean to us now?
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, I have a question, as you were talking about the economy for a minute, and we begin with the very troubling figures around the world of what’s happening. You were, how old, something like fourteen in 1929, so you remember the Great Depression.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I remember, but not as—it wasn’t as vivid to me now than as it is now, because, you know, I was a child. My father had a restaurant. We had plenty to eat. And I had no sense of the real—of where this country is, and I think we—I didn’t have, and I think no one had, that we would be in such dire states.
By the way, you used the word “troubling” about the economy. I see a less-than-robust economy not as a troubling, but as an opportunity for us to look at ourselves and reorder our priorities. And I think if this—you know, if this were happening in China, if the economy was tanking, we might say that’s good. That’s a way to save our economy. But we see it happening to us here, and we worry about it. And we don’t see how what we have done and the way that we have tried to be robust in our economic growth has created all these crises for the world. That’s why I like to start looking at the economy. How can we take advantage of this opportunity, this crisis, to reorder our priorities?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me throw that question back to you. How can we?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, you see, that—what people don’t realize is at the end of his life, King was looking at our crisis, a profound spiritual and material crisis, and he said that we had advanced economic growth at the expense of community and of participation, that our works had become larger and we ourselves had become smaller. Just think about that. Think about how we have to look at our humanity in the way that King was looking at it. And knowing that he was about to be killed, that his life was—I mean, that he was not going to see the promised land, as he said, with us, but that he was facing these issues and that this is his legacy to us this year.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you find it frightening, Grace Lee Boggs, that here we are at the height of military might in the United States, the most powerful military country on earth, and yet we have a shaky economy, which could mean that in order to assert itself, the US will push harder militarily to maintain its supremacy because of its insecurity around its economy?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: But it doesn’t have to do that. If we take advantage of his legacy to say this is a question of choice, we are not at the mercy of circumstances. We are human beings. We can become more purposeful. We can choose. We don’t have to go the way of empires. Or, going the way of empires, we don’t have to continue to go that way.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our guest, the legendary activist, Grace Lee Boggs. She’s ninety-two years old, continues to speak around the country, writes for the weekly, Michigan Citizen.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Grace Lee Boggs, legendary peace activist, has lived in the same house in Detroit for more than half a century. Did you know Paul Robeson, by the way, Grace?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Did you ask me—
AMY GOODMAN: Did you know Paul Robeson?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: No, I did not. I did not know Paul Robeson. As a matter fact, I was in a Trotskyite group, and we had all sorts of misgivings about Communists. And I have some sense of his importance, particularly since I moved to Detroit and began living in the black community. But in the rarified atmosphere of New York among New York radicals, one had a tendency to, you know, disregard or underestimate what was going on in people who were pro-Communist or friendly with the fellow travelers of the Communist Party.
AMY GOODMAN: You didn’t work directly with Dr. King. You did know Malcolm X. Can you talk about the tensions at that time and how they inform what you think should be happening today?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, you know, like many Black Power activists in the ’60s, I tended to think of King as somewhat naive with his advocacy of nonviolence. And it took me a lot of time to be—I identified with Malcolm much more, as many of us did in the movement in the North.
And it took the rebellions of the ’60s, the late ’60s, and the crime and violence that began to erupt in our cities following—particularly in Detroit—following the rebellions for me to ask, you know, is it possible that there is something in King’s message that we have to internalize in order to rebuild our cities, to redefine our cities, to re-spirit our cities? And it was in really beginning to face the problems of a de-industrialized Detroit and a crime-ridden and a violence-ridden Detroit, that Detroit—that King began to mean more to me, as I began to work with young people and see how much they needed to have what he called self-transforming and environment-transforming programs that they could engage in and begin to be of use and to serve, as I began to understand the alienation of young people in our cities and the alienation that King understood, that he grasped as he tried to understand both the Vietnam War and the rebellions, the urban rebellions.
People have very little idea of how hard he really struggled with that issue. We are so used to turning him into a cliché that we don’t relate the challenges we now face now to the challenge that he faced at the end of his life and that Malcolm also faced, by the way. Malcolm came back from the Hajj in 1964 saying, “I’m a Muslim, and I’m a revolutionary, but I don’t know where I’m going from there. But I know I have to crawl before I walk. I have to walk before I run. And I don’t think I’m going to have time to do that.” So I feel that in trying to understand both King and Malcolm and also to understand the billions of Muslims all over the world who are really trying to find another road to modernity other than that of the United States and the calamities that it has meant for them and for the world, that we need to understand how much we have to look into the mirror at ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, there has been a debate over the last few weeks among the presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, about the power of King. Also, last night they debated in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For the first half, they were really going at it. Then they sat down, and they agreed on a lot of things. And one of the things that Barack Obama said when asked whether—you know, who would Dr. King endorse, something like that—the debate happening on Dr. King Day—Barack Obama said he wouldn’t endorse any of us. He was speaking as a presidential candidate. He said he would be leading a movement to pressure us. Can you talk about how you’ve seen this debate play out over the last few weeks and where you stand?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I think that—I think it’s wonderful, by the way, that both Hillary and Obama are running and that they’re frontrunners in this campaign, because I think they help us to see that it’s not a question of race or gender, it’s a question of whether we encourage the movement and unleash the movement of people from below or whether we try to run things from above, from the White House. And though I consider myself a feminist, I have to look at what Hillary stands for in terms of top-down leadership. And I have to understand—have to look at Obama and see that younger people, a new generation is emerging and looking for the kind of healing that this country needs, that he has unleashed that, though his policies are not that different from Clinton’s. But he has unleashed an energy in the young people particularly, which has great promise.
And he has also helped to unfreeze the unity that existed among blacks. He has helped us to see that all blacks are not the same. I think that people have become—that in the interest of unity, blacks who have not actually been in the same place—some of them are in the White House and some of them are in the Supreme Court and some of them are in the Congress, and others are groping with very fundamental questions of daily life. And that that split actually exists in the country, that it actually exists in the community, but this campaign has helped us to see, to begin to grapple with that difference.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, you’re not—
GRACE LEE BOGGS: That’s a very important development, not just for the black community, but for this country. There was an unfreezing that began to take place in the Jackson administration when the Federalist Party died, and we had the beginning of the birth of the Democrats. That same kind of unfreezing is going on right now.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Grace Lee Boggs. She is in Detroit, Michigan. You are not usually deeply involved in electoral politics, yet here you are deeply believing in the significance of what’s happening this year. What has changed? And did you ever have hope in other electoral years, in other presidential—times of presidential elections?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I’ve never had this much hope. I’ve never had—because I think this one is unique. You know, policy-wise, I think Dennis Kucinich is much more on the right track. In fact, I support him. But he does not have that particular combination of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother that can help unleash different energies. You know, sometimes—he can’t help it, of course, but sometimes it takes a certain person to do that. And I don’t think—it’s not—to me, it’s not so important, the electoral politics. How they will develop, I don’t know. But when I felt that energy of young people, and I feel it around here, and I think of what Fanon said about each generation emerging out of obscurity must define its mission and fulfill or betray it. We’re living at one of those tide times.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think are the key issues right now? And for people who are grassroots activists, as you are, what do you think their role is in this year of a presidential race that you think is so key?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, Barack Obama used a phrase in his speech at Ebenezer, which I think we have to sort of embrace. He said we have to lead “by example.” That’s what we have to do. He can do it—maybe he can. I don’t know. But we had charismatic leaders in the ’60s, and they almost all got gunned down. And if we depend so much on charismatic leaders, not only are they in danger, but we do not exercise our capacities in relationship to our situations to create the world anew. And that’s where we are. If you want—
AMY GOODMAN: What about Barack Obama’s stance on healthcare, which is not very different from Hillary Clinton or John Edwards?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Oh, not at all. I mean, his is just as much in sort of the box of the insurance companies as Hillary’s. That’s why I think that Kucinich’s policy of a single-payer system is much more progressive, not only for the health of our bodies, but for the health of our minds and our spirits.
But that—it’s not a question. This is not a question. We are not at a time where we debate policy. I remember when I was in the radical movement, how we’d debate policies, how we had this phrase “critical support.” And we were actually trying to vie with other people for leadership. And I don’t think that’s where we are now. I think we’re redefining leadership. We’re understanding that leadership has within it the complexities of followship and that followship is not what we need, that we have to become the leaders we’re looking for in relationship to our local daily circumstances.
AMY GOODMAN: Last night in the debate in Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton said to Barack Obama, “Yes, you admirably opposed the war in 2002, yet you took the speech that you gave in your fierce opposition to the war off your website, and then you ultimately voted again and again for funding for this war.” Your response to that, Grace Lee Boggs?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, that’s the sort of thing that, if I were concerned with Obama and supporting him, that’s one—also if I were competing with him—that’s the sort of thing I would do, too. But I’m not. What I’m trying to do is encourage the capacities, the energy, the creativity, the imagination, that exists in people at the grassroots to redefine and rebuild our society. If we want to live in freedom from terror, we have to begin looking at ourselves, redefining who we are, redefining who this country is and reassessing what it is within our capacity to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you think the most important turning points in history have been in your lifetime?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, Rebecca Solnit wrote a wonderful article on the revolution of the snails, and it was on Common Dreams last Wednesday. She’s a wonderful person, by the way, a remarkable writer. And I think that, for me, the turning point was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, when a concept of revolution emerged that was different from the revolutions that people had embraced and tried to carry out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, revolutions which were chiefly to take power and which they, we so subsequently discovered, made those of us who were struggling to take power very much like those from whom we had taken the power. And in 1955, in response to the brutality of Southern racism, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Alabamans in Montgomery began—carried out a boycott of more than one year of the Montgomery buses in which they showed that there was an opportunity for a new society to be built on people who are transforming themselves and who are not just opposing those who oppress them.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, we only have thirty seconds, but I wanted to ask if you see some kind of similar movement needed today around the issue of the Iraq war, that goes on despite the lack of attention to it in the presidential race?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes, I think what—the difficulty with most of the opposition to the war is it’s only opposition. The opposition to—I would urge and encourage those who oppose the war to point out how we have to change ourselves and not only blame the war on Bush, though he is to be blamed, of course.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, I want to thank you very much for joining us, legendary civil rights activist, speaking to us from Detroit, Michigan. Her autobiography is called Living for Change. And that does it for today’s show. This just in: the Federal Reserve has cut its benchmark interest rate by three-quarters of a percentage point. It’s the largest one-day cut in interest rates in almost a quarter of a century.
Sister Grace on Detroit & Societal Transformation (via In These Times)
"As a philosopher, who has been a movement activist, for nearly 70 years, I'm very conscious that we're living in a period of a transition which is as far reaching, in its cultural ramifications, as the transition from hunting & gathering 11,000 years ago to agriculture, and from agriculture to industry a few centuries ago. We are in the process of re-inventing almost everything: work; education; politics; economics; fundamental conceptions of justice, of leadership, and of democracy; moving beyond concepts of punitive justice to concepts of restorative justice; moving beyond the framework of leadership-follwership, which is essentially a vertical relationship; to concepts of leadership which are much more horizontal. The concepts of democracy that also go beyond the essentially vertical relationship of representative democracy to more participatory forms."
Changing the Way Society Changes: Transposing Social Activism into a Dramatic Key
By Peter D. Hershock
Asian Studies Development Program
1601 East-West Road
Honolulu, Hawaii 96848-1601
While many Buddhists are rightly committed to working in the public sphere for the resolution of suffering, there are very real incompatibilities between the axiomatic concepts and strategic biases of (the dominant strands of) both current human rights discourse and social activism and such core Buddhist practices as seeing all things as interdependent, impermanent, empty, and karmically configured. Indeed, the almost startling successes of social activism have been ironic, hinging on its strategic and conceptual indebtedness to core values shared with the technological and ideological forces that have sponsored its own necessity. The above-mentioned Buddhist practices provide a way around the critical blind spot instituted by the marriage of Western rationalism, a technological bias toward control, and the axiomatic status of individual human being, displaying the limits of social activism's institutional approach to change and opening concrete possibilities for a dramatically Buddhist approach to changing the way societies change.
Formally established tolerance of dissent and internal critique has become a mark of distinction among contemporary societies. Indeed, with economic globalization and the rhetoric of democracy acting in practically unassailable concert, the imperative to establish and maintain the conditions under which political protest and social activism are possible has become the keystone challenge to developing nations throughout Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
It is not my intention here to question the legitimacy of this challenge. The possibility of dissent is crucial to realizing a truly responsive society capable of correcting its own errors of judgement and organizational practice, and institutional changes of the sort brought about by political protest and social activism have undeniably been instrumental in this process. What I want to question are the prevalent strategies for bringing about such corrections and the axiological presuppositions on which they pivot. Although it may be true that "nothing succeeds like success," it is also true that nothing more readily blinds us to inherent flaws in the means and meaning of our successes than 'success' itself. Critical inattention to the strategic axioms underlying the successful engineering of political and social change might, in other words, finally render our best-intended efforts self-defeating.
My thesis, then, is a disquieting one: social activism's successes have hinged on its strategic and conceptual indebtedness to core values shared with the technological and ideological forces that have sponsored its own necessity. That is, the same conditions that have made successful social activism possible have also made it necessary. With potentially tragic irony, social activist practices -- and theory -- have been effectively reproducing rather than truly reducing the conditions of institutionalized disadvantage and dependence.
In a liberal democratic context, such a thesis verges on political and philosophical heresy, and if we are hard pressed to take it seriously, it is only because the positive and progressive nature of the changes wrought by social activism are so manifestly self-evident. Unfortunately, if our prevailing standards of reason and critical inquiry are not entirely neutral, the manifestly positive and progressive nature of social activism's history might be the result of a critical blind-spot. In that case, the ironic nature of social activist success would be effectively invisible.
As a way around any such critical lacunae, I will be appealing to such core Buddhist practices as seeing all things as impermanent, as karmically configured, and as empty or interdependent. These practices and the theories adduced in their support mark a radical inversion of the critical and logical priorities constitutive of the philosophical, religious, and political traditions that have governed our dominant conceptions of freedom and civil society. By systematically challenging our bias for subordinating values to facts, relationships to the related, uniqueness to universality, and contribution to control, Buddhist practice makes possible a meaningful assessment and revision of social activist strategy. Importantly, it also opens the possibility of critically evaluating the phenomenon of "engaged Buddhism" and its ostensibly corrective relationship with the root conditions of suffering.
Until now, social activists have been able to effectively contest institutionalized disadvantage and dependence at the institutional level, securing basic civil and human rights by using many of the same values and technologies employed in first establishing and then maintaining structural inequity. To the extent that it has been noted, the shared genealogy of social activist solutions and the problems they address has been subsumed under the rubric of a pragmatically justified separation of means and ends. If the present critique has any merit, our thankfulness for the apparent gains made by social activists in promoting basic human dignities must not be allowed to distract us from appreciating the rapidity with which we are approaching a point of no return beyond which fighting fire with fire will no longer be an option.