Boston is the place where, in 1952, the young Martin Luther King Jr., a doctoral student in theology, met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and student at New England Conservatory. It is also the city to which the reverend would return as a national civil rights leader in April of 1965 to address the Massachusetts Legislature and to lead one of Boston’s first freedom marches from Carter Playground to the Common, where he addressed 22,000 people standing in the cold rain.
And today, it is a city that can do far better to honor the Kings’ legacy — both in symbol and deed.
Since 2017, local nonprofit King Boston has been working with the city and The Boston Foundation to raise funds for a memorial to Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, to stand in Boston Common, and a namesake center for economic justice in Roxbury that would work at the neighborhood scale to help people in need access education, jobs, and housing. For the memorial, a committee of artists, administrators, and scholars chose a stunning design by acclaimed artist Hank Willis Thomas and locally spawned MASS Design Group for a 22-foot-tall bronze-plated sculpture, called “The Embrace.” But of the $12 million estimated combined cost of the projects, a figure that also includes an endowment for King-inspired programming at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury where he worshipped and preached, only $6 million has been raised to date. The Boston Common project also faces bureaucratic hurdles, since it must be approved by three different city commissions — landmarks, parks, and art — with distinct processes.
In a city that loves its historic monuments, building one to honor the Kings should not be taking so long, or be so arduous. And it would be embarrassing if the memorial and center were still looking for funds when Boston hosts the NAACP national convention this summer.
In 1965, King encountered a Boston with poor, segregated public schools and where people of color struggled to find jobs and safe housing. Today, stark inequality along racial lines persists in Greater Boston, where the median net worth of white households is $247,500 and the median net worth of nonimmigrant black households is only $8. The structural racism and economic injustice that preoccupied King in his final years remain a scar on our city — as does Boston’s reputation for being a place uninviting to people of color.
Some will argue, with good reason, that symbols — naming a street after King, or even erecting a memorial — are not enough to honor the legacy of the civil rights leader if a city fails to also address that historic legacy of injustice and ongoing structural and interpersonal racism. But the two missions are not mutually exclusive, and a powerful, prominent symbol, especially in a region densely populated by monuments to white men, can serve as a public declaration about who a city honors and what it values in its history, and as a stimulus for conversation and progress. The Boston Common statue envisioned by Thomas and MASS Design Group — who also designed the statue at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. — is modeled after a photograph of the Kings embracing after MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize, and evokes the ways in which civil rights protestors linked arms in an expression of radical love.
Perhaps even more radical is the goal of the King Center for Economic Justice’s mission, which is nothing short of making Boston a model for racial equity and economic justice. “We have an embarrassment of riches in Boston," said King Boston executive director Marie St. Fleur in an interview. “Given our size, we’re in a position to show how we can reduce or eliminate the entrenched injustice that we see.”
The Kings’ struggle for justice is far from over — and today the city has a chance both to honor their work and pick up their mantle. Boston’s deep-pocketed philanthropists and business leaders should band together to fund the center and art installation. And Mayor Walsh and the city’s relevant commissions should hasten the approval process to begin construction of the memorial on the Common by the summer. But let’s not stop there. May this city honor the Kings not just with statues or even centers of action, but with tractable results: by working to heal racial divides and make more equal and accessible the vast resources of our city and region. Not surprisingly, King said it best when he spoke to the marchers standing in the rain on the Common in 1965: “Boston must become a testing ground for the ideals of freedom.”
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.