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Longtime Activist to Keynote Otelia Cromwell Day



James and Grace Lee Boggs

It’s been more than 60 years since Grace Lee Boggs first advocated for a cause she believed in; although the issues have changed some over that time, the longtime activist, writer and speaker, has never retired her passion.

“We face catastrophe in the Middle East, we very well may face defeat in the Middle East” in spreading thin American military forces and “trying to do what Germany could not do earlier in this century,” she said. “Things look dark right now. But there’s always hope in the unknown of the future.”

At 88, Boggs is a tireless protector of social justice. She still oversees the Boggs Center in Detroit, a nonprofit community organization which she founded in 1995 with her late husband James Boggs to support grassroots activism. She remains active in the Detroit Agricultural Network and the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit. She also keeps a busy speaking schedule, writes a weekly column for the Michigan Citizen and gives a monthly commentary for radio station WORT in Madison, Wisconsin.

In 1998, Boggs published her autobiography Living for Change, which documents her participation in some of the most defining social movements in American history, promoting civil rights and Black power, women’s rights and environmental responsibility. Her autobiography is widely used in college classes on social activism and the recent history of social movements in America.

Boggs will visit Smith as the keynote speaker for Otelia Cromwell Day on Thursday, October 30, when she presents “Living for Change” at 1:15 p.m. in Sweeney Concert Hall at Sage. Her talk will be preceded by a performance by the Glee Club.

Otelia Cromwell Day, named for the first known African American to graduate from Smith, was established in 1989 to promote further education and reflection about issues of diversity and racism. Cromwell, who graduated in 1900, eventually became a professor and chair of the English language and literature department at Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C. The author of three books and many articles, Cromwell received an honorary degree from Smith in 1950.

Several events will take place as part of Otelia Cromwell Day, including a film series, two panels, performances and an exhibit, “Photography of the Civil Rights Movement.” For a complete schedule, consult http://www.smith.edu/otelia/schedule.php.

It was 1941, at age 25, when Grace Boggs first entered the activist arena, she recalls. Fresh out of Bryn Mawr with a doctorate in philosophy, she lived in a rat-infested apartment in Chicago, which prompted her to protest the conditions for many of the city’s residents. That led her to witness myriad social injustices in the city’s Black community, she said, and she hasn’t stopped speaking out since.

“I’ve been at this a long, long time,” she says. “That first experience showed me what a movement can do to transform people’s lives and society.” Boggs’ involvement in the Black community ultimately led her to become deeply entwined in the Civil Rights movement. In 1954, she met and married James Boggs, a fellow radical, with whom she co-authored Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century in 1974 and Conversations in Maine: Exploring Our Nation’s Future. James Boggs died in 1995.

It’s a symbolic fit for Boggs to anchor the Otelia Cromwell Day series of events. As a first-generation Chinese American, 40-year spouse of an African American activist, and a longtime participant in racial and social movements, she appreciates the significance of working toward a harmonious multi-ethnic society. When she graduated from Barnard with a bachelor’s degree in 1935, Boggs remembers, “there were three people of color in the audience.” In 1995, back at Barnard for her 60-year reunion, the population of people of color had risen to 25 to 30 percent, she says, an encouraging sign of multi-ethnic progress.

“More and more people now are not labeling themselves ethnically,” she says. “That’s a good sign. The multi-ethnic character in our country now transcends the concept of diversity.”

As for her future, Boggs insists she is not likely to stop speaking out. There’s no shortage of injustice today, though “all the issues now are more integrated,” each one affecting the others. “The magnitude of our challenge today is much larger as compared to the past,” she asserts.

As for her seemingly limitless energy, Boggs says each new challenge breeds its own passion. “Every success creates new contradictions. Every new contradiction demands new imagination.”

For more information on Grace Lee Boggs, consult http://www.boggscenter.org/.

 
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