Grace Lee Boggs, 92-year-old civil rights and environmental justice activist. She has lived in Detroit for fifty-four years and writes for the weekly Michigan Citizen. In 1992 she co-founded the Detroit Summer youth program, and her autobiography Living for Change was published in 1998.
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]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
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.
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 —
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 -—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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