Monument to Coretta Scott and MLK Is Coming to Boston, City Where They Met

Hank Willis Thomas’ sculpture of intertwined arms will memorialize the civil rights leaders and their fight for racial equality

A rendering of a large sculpture of disembodied arms embracing one another, surrounded by a spiral path with ledges for sitting and the greenery of the public park around, scattered with people
A rendering of by Hank Willis Thomas' The Embrace, a public memorial set to be unveiled in the Boston Commons in October 2022 Courtesy of MASS Design Group

Coretta Scott and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—two of the most influential civil rights leaders in American history—met on a cold January day in 1952. King, then a PhD candidate and assistant minister at Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston’s historically black Roxbury neighborhood, drove his green car across town to pick up Scott, who was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music.

It was a blind date, and a successful one at that. The pair wed the following year, on June 18, 1953, before moving to Montgomery, Alabama, where Martin served as a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Nearly 70 years after the Kings’ first date, a monument honoring the couple—and their legacy of fighting for racial justice—is slated to arrive in Boston, reports Sophie Haigney for the New York Times. Designed by Brooklyn-based artist Hank Willis Thomas, the sculpture is expected to be unveiled in the Boston Common, the United States’ oldest public park, in October 2022. (King led one of the city’s first freedom marches on April 23, 1965, taking attendees from Roxbury to the park; around 22,000 people gathered to hear him speak.)

A rendering of the sculpture, with large arms bent at elbows embracing another set of arms, all in a shiny bronze; sculpture surrounded by people
A rendering of Hank Willis Thomas' The Embrace, a roughly 22-foot-tall sculpture made of patinated bronze Courtesy of MASS Design Group

King Boston, a nonprofit dedicated to furthering the Kings’ legacy in the city where they met, is raising funds for the public memorial, reported Jon Chesto for the Boston Globe last November. (Per the organization’s website, donors have already contributed more than $12 million toward the $15 million campaign.) Titled The Embrace, the 22-foot-tall, patinated bronze work will feature two pairs of intertwined, disembodied arms.

Members of the public will be able to walk underneath and around the sculpture, which will be surrounded on all sides by a patterned circular pathway inspired by African American quilting traditions, according to a project proposal.

“This memorial will envelop participants, allowing them to be simultaneously vulnerable and protected,” notes MASS Design Group, which submitted Thomas’ work in response to a 2017 call for proposals, in the project description.

“We were inspired by images of the Kings locked in a powerful embrace and walking arm in arm at the frontlines of a protest or march. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King understood the power of physical collectiveness in advancing our fight against injustice,” the group continues. “As we reflected upon the King legacy, one image—one idea—emerged above the others: [e]mbrace.”

King Boston selected Thomas’ design in March 2019 after narrowing down the applicant pool from 126 to 5. Thomas, who often uses photography to inspire public works that engage with themes of black identity and history, drew inspiration from a photo of Coretta and Martin embracing after learning that the latter had won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964.

As Thomas told WBUR’s Marcia Garcia in 2019, the photo appears to show Coretta supporting Martin’s weight. The artist notes that while Martin’s activism has often overshadowed her own, Coretta played a key role in the civil rights movement, particularly in securing her husband’s legacy in the years after his 1968 assassination. She founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, and advocated that his birthday, January 15, become a national holiday.

“We often look at the heroes without seeing who is holding them up and where their courage or strength comes from,” Thomas said. “The love that [Coretta] exhibited by carrying [Martin’s] legacy even after he was gone is something we should be paying attention to.”

Despite her decades of activism, Coretta “hasn’t received adequate recognition for institutionalizing his philosophy of nonviolence,” Vicki Crawford, director of the Morehouse College King collection, tells the Associated Press’ Philip Marcelo. “He could not have done it without her by his side.”

In addition to Thomas’ sculpture, King Boston director Imari Paris Jeffries plans to raise money for an economic justice center in Roxbury, reports the AP.

“Boston has the opportunity to be the very first city in the nation to emerge post-vaccine as a place that embodies values of justice,” Jeffries tells Artnet News’ Taylor Dafoe. “Now more than ever people want to ‘embrace’ friends, loved ones, and each other. [This sculpture] is a symbol of that sentiment.”

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