Happy Birthday James Boggs May 27, 1919
Happy Birthday James Boggs
Last week marked James Boggs’s 96th birthday. His birth certificate gives May 27, 1919 as his date of birth, however he celebrated May 28 as his birthday. That Jimmy’s actual birthdate would be a day earlier than the day on which he celebrated it makes for a fitting commemoration of his thinking, because his ideas were often “ahead of his day.” This is not only because he consistently put forward projections for the future. It is also because his emphasis on thinking historically and thinking dialectically led him to identify profound questions we need to ask in a particular moment to meet the challenges that we face today and that will shape the struggles of tomorrow.
Jimmy did this throughout his life of political activism, writing, organizing, and community building. For example, during the 1950s he recognized the ways that automation was transforming the lives of workers in the Chrysler plant where he worked and in factories throughout Detroit, bringing a drastic transformation in the nature of work and of the composition of the working class. In his 1963 book The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, Jimmy said automation represented a new stage of industrial production in which the nation’s capacity eliminated the need for mass workers. Thus, the challenge was not to simply save the jobs being replaced by machines, but to develop a new theory for this new reality. This theory, he said, would help us determine “what people would do with themselves, what would be there human role, or how society would be organized, when work is no longer at the heart of society.” These questions are even more pressing now.
This approach to revolutionary change was central Jimmy and Grace’s four decades of marriage and intellectual and political partnership. In each historical moment, they combined theoretical reflection with practical struggles to advance those ideas “whose time has come.” From their concept of Black Power as a force to transform the whole country in the 1960s, to their call for community-building to revitalize cities in the 1980s, they have shown the need for all of us to take responsibility for changing society. Jimmy and Grace have inspired others to create new visions—many of which we see in Detroit today—while always building their own ways to put these ideas into practice, such as the creation of Detroit Summer in 1992, one year before Jimmy’s death. Explaining “Why Detroit Summer,” he wrote: “we, the citizens of Detroit, are faced with new problems no previous generation has had to solve. We have to ask ourselves new questions that human beings like ourselves never had to ask. We have to create new dreams for the twenty-first century.”
Indeed, dreams cultivated by Detroit Summer are all around us as we mark Jimmy’s 96th birthday last week and Grace’s coming 100th at the end of the month. On May 28 Julia Putnam embodied those dreams when she told a gathering of supporters of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School that this was Jimmy’s birthday. As a high school student Julia was the first to sign-up for Detroit Summer in 1992. That experience, her relationship with Grace and Jimmy, and legacy of the ideas they developed led in part to Julia and others founding the Boggs School. On June 21, activists and artists who have been part of the Detroit Summer Collective and are members of the Allied Media Conference will close the gathering by honoring and celebrating Grace. This event will launch the week-long celebration of Grace’s 100th birthday, during which many more visions for the future—reflected by Feedom Freedom Growers, Peace Zones for Life, Growing Our Souls tours, among other ways. These celebrations give us wonderful opportunities to say “Happy Birthday” to Jimmy and Grace and to ask ourselves, as they have consistently urged us to do: what time is it in Detroit and on the clock the world?