How Did a Chinese-American Woman Become a Black Power Activist?

A new documentary examines the life of Grace Lee Boggs, a leading voice in Detroit’s African-American community.

Grace Lee Boggs Quyen Tran

“I had never been in contact with black people before. I was aware that people were suffering, but it was more a statistical thing,” Boggs says. “And here in Chicago, I was coming in contact with it as a human thing.”

In 1941 she became involved in the March on Washington movement, which challenged the federal government to address discriminatory hiring practices in the defense industry. When President Franklin Roosevelt realized that organizers—led by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin—were serious about bringing thousands of people to the nation’s capital, he signed Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination at defense plants. Roosevelt temporarily halted the march—it would eventually happen in 1963—but in that moment, Boggs discovered her true calling.

“I found out that if you mobilize a mass action, you can change the world,” Boggs says. “And I thought to myself, ‘Boy, if a movement can achieve that, that’s what I want to do with my life.’”

While in Chicago she met C.L.R. James, a West Indian Marxist involved in various socialist organizations that advocated for workers’ rights. By the 1950s, Boggs saw Detroit—with its booming auto industry attracting a steady stream of African Americans from the South—as the next front in a new workers’ revolution.

It was there that she met her husband, James Boggs, an auto-plant worker from Alabama who was deeply involved in workers’ rights and a leading activist in Detroit’s black community. Through James, Grace was embraced by the city’s black community and together they became a formidable duo advocating for change for more than 40 years (he died in 1993).

She would eventually leave the Marxist establishment to focus on the emerging civil rights movement. In 1963 she and her husband helped organize the march down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, where Martin Luther King Jr. first tested the themes of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he would deliver two months later in Washington, D.C.

When the black movement splintered into two distinct camps—King’s nonviolent resistance on the one hand and Malcolm X’s militant radicalism on the other—Boggs chose the side that best aligned with her ideal vision of a revolutionary movement.

“I was a Malcolm person. I would go and hear Malcolm speak and audiences would squirm as he would challenge them to think differently to transform themselves.”

With black people being brutalized and killed simply for speaking out, King’s stance on nonviolence seemed “naive” to Boggs. But like any good revolutionary, her views evolved over time.

“As I saw the violence increase in our cities, I wondered would it have been possible to combine Malcolm’s militancy with King’s nonviolence,” Boggs says. “I began reading King much more carefully.”