I am supposed to be grading papers this evening, but I cannot leave this day without saying a word about two dignified rebels whose life stories, when I read them over my morning coffee, took my breath away. I discovered them in the New York Times: Grace Lee Boggs and Vivian Stromberg. Reading these obituaries was humbling and inspiring. I never had the chance to meet either woman. I wish I had.
As part of a vanguard social movement in Detroit focusing on African Americans and women in 1953, Grace Lee and her future husband (James Boggs, a black autoworker, radical, and writer), initially joined forces with the Black Power movement. Later they embraced nonviolent methods and became prominent fighters against urban blight. In 1992, Grace Boggs co-founded Detroit Summer, a youth program that still draws volunteers from all around the country to repair homes, paint murals, organize music festivals and turn vacant lots into gardens. In 2013, she opened the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter elementary school.
Born of Chinese immigrants, she grew up above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, RI. Her passion was radical politics which in later years she has seen as a moral struggle of we, the individuals. As Grace Boggs said during a Bill Moyers interview in 2007, “I think that too much of our emphasis on struggle has simply been in terms of confrontation and not enough recognition of how much spiritual and moral force is involved in the people who are struggling,… We have not embraced sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves.”
Grace Lee Boggs was 100 years old.
Vivian Stromberg was an elementary school music teacher in the South Bronx in the early 1980s, when she joined a group of women hoping to rally public opinion against American support for the contras, the rebels trying to overthrow the left-wing Sandanista government in Nicaragua. This group became known as “Madre” in 1983, and Ms. Stromberg was one of the founding members and later executive director. Madre works with local women’s groups in the US, Central America, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Africa to alleviate suffering caused by war and natural disasters, and to promote human rights. Its first project was to send a ton of baby cereal and powdered milk to Nicaragua.
But activism was not new to her in the early 1980s. Politics must have been in the air while she was growing up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in the 1940s and 50s. While in college Vivian Stromberg joined the Freedom Riders, who traveled by bus across the South in mixed-race groups to challenge racial segregation. And she was also active in the Anti-Vietnam War movement. Since its founding in 1983, Madre has directed about $34 million in humanitarian aid. One of her most adventurous exploits was organizing, with a Jordanian women’s group, a truck convoy to drive 10 tons of milk and medicine from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, at the end of the first Persian Gulf War.
“When you know your rights, instead of begging for something, you start asking that it not be taken away,” Ms. Stromberg told O magazine in 2008. “Your whole body language changes; you stop crying.”
Vivian Stromberg was 74 years old.
Rest in peace, dear wonderful ladies of the 20th and 21st century. Thank you both, for the way that you threw yourselves into caring for people in our world. I bet you had a blast!