I spoke (via Skype) to the graduate students Symposium at Harvard University on December 5, the 20th anniversary of the death of Nathan Huggins, former director of the university's DuBois Center. This is what I said:
“I appreciate this opportunity to share with you why Nathan Huggins means so much to me, as someone who has been a Movement activist and philosopher inside the black community and in Detroit for nearly 70 years.
“Nathan Huggins is my favorite historian because he writes about blacks not mainly as victims but as a people who have the power within them to re-invent themselves and create the world anew.
“That is how he wrote in Black Odyssey about the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were brought to these shores in chains.
“That is how he wrote about Frederick Bailey, the slave who ran away from his slavemaster, reinvented himself as Citizen Frederick Douglass, and challenged President Abraham Lincoln to wage the Civil War, not to “Save the Union” but to abolish slavery and thus save his own soul and the soul of the nation.
“Nathan Huggins recognized that at critical periods in American history black individuals with an extraordinary sense of self, mission, and purpose have become national leaders because they have provided a lens through which to view the larger reality. Huggins spoke in this vein about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in his remarks at the Symposium of black intellectuals convened in 1986 to discuss how to celebrate the recently-established national Martin Luther King holiday.
“Today, when our country is mired in war in the Middle East and in our inner cities, Martin and Malcolm, each in his own way, provide a lens to the larger reality.
“In his 1967 speech against the war in Vietnam, Martin called for a radical revolution of values against the giant triplets of Racism, Materialism, and Militarism.
"A true revolution of values will say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.’
“Malcolm was a convict who in his 20s began transforming himself from a hustler into a leader and kept transforming himself to the day that he was killed in February 1965, a few months before his 40th birthday.
“In the 1960s, when Malcolm was ‘our own black shining prince,’ there were only a relatively few black cons and ex-cons. Today there are millions, and some of them, remembering Malcolm, have returned to their hoods to engage in the day-to-day patient struggles necessary to transform the War Zones of our inner cities into Peace Zones.
“As graduate students, most of you are probably preparing to become academics. I hope that in doing so you will not divorce yourself from these struggles inside our cities.
“For most of American history, despite unspeakable racist cruelties and abuses, black culture flourished because highly-educated blacks were forced to live side by side with barely literate ones in segregated communities. Over the last 20-30 years both black thought and black inner city communities have suffered a cultural holocaust because in the wake of the civil rights movement black intellectuals now see the academy as their turf.
“Your generation has the opportunity and responsibility to restore the historic connection.”
Grace Lee Boggs has been an activist for more than 60 years and is the author of the autobiography Living for Change.