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King memorial nearly ready for Boston Common as backer begins second effort to honor civil rights leader

Entrepreneur Paul English is also raising funds for an economic justice center in MLK’s name, as construction on sculpture nears

Survey work is expected to begin shortly at the Boston Common in preparation for a memorial honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Survey work is expected to begin shortly at the Boston Common in preparation for a memorial honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.MASS Design Group

Work on a memorial honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, is expected to begin within weeks on the Boston Common, while the project’s founder embarks on a new fund-raising effort to create a center in Roxbury honoring the Kings that will focus on economic inequity.

Site prep should begin by the end of June, and entrepreneur Paul English said he expects construction on the new plaza near the Parkman Bandstand on the Common will get underway by the end of the year. The centerpiece will be a sculpture of four intertwined 22-foot-high bronze arms called “The Embrace." Artist Hank Willis Thomas is designing it, while architects at Boston-based MASS Design Group are developing the plaza.

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“It’s exciting," said English, who led the effort to raise $6 million for the memorial. "It took longer than I anticipated for sure but I think it’s very timely with everything happening nationally that we’re going to be able to celebrate this soon in Boston.”

Meanwhile, the organization behind the memorial is starting a second round of fund-raising for a related project — the King Center for Economic Justice ― that has taken on additional urgency with the protests over racial inequality following the death of George Floyd.

Paul English, who led the effort to raise $6 million for the memorial, said: "It took longer than I anticipated for sure but I think it’s very timely with everything happening nationally that we’re going to be able to celebrate this soon in Boston.”
Paul English, who led the effort to raise $6 million for the memorial, said: "It took longer than I anticipated for sure but I think it’s very timely with everything happening nationally that we’re going to be able to celebrate this soon in Boston.” Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“The events of the last two weeks sharpened the focus to say people in Boston should be coming together on racial issues,” English said. “I’m hoping the MLK projects can be a way of convening these discussions.”

Working with The Boston Foundation, English leads an initiative aimed at honoring the Kings and their time in Boston. The effort, called King Boston, wants to create a center in Roxbury that would convene various Boston organizations and agencies that confront racial disparities within the city’s economy, assist with research, and offer an annual assessment of how Boston is doing with race and equity.

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The center would be based in the renovated city library branch in Nubian Square in Roxbury.

“It would be a crying shame if all of what comes out of this King Boston effort is a memorial. It has to be more,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, associate pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, and a member of the King Boston organizing committee.

Floyd died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pinned a knee on his neck for more than 8 minutes. The subsequent protests in Boston and around the country have underscored the need to tackle questions of racial inequity.

“I’m hoping it’s going to animate people,” English said of the King projects. “I want Bostonians to come together and say, ‘Let’s make a statement about our city.’”

English is thinking nationally as well: He is exploring a potential partnership for a race project with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Fund-raising for the center in Roxbury will initially have a modest goal of at least $600,000 for an executive director and research librarian, as well as programming costs, for two years. Long term, the group is targeting a $6 million endowment, so the center can be self-sustaining.

Imari Paris Jeffries, a prominent local nonprofit manager, recently took over for former state representative Marie St. Fleur as King Boston’s executive director. English said he just started working with Jeffries to craft both a fund-raising plan for the center and a plan for getting the community involved.

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King Boston has also backed a 30-minute documentary on the Kings, called “Legacy of Love" and hosted by Liz Walker, that English hopes will air on WGBH within the next several months. The documentary’s director, local filmmaker Roberto Mighty, said there could be national interest as well. Mighty said the film shows never-before-seen footage and features Coretta Scott’s influence in her husband’s activism.

“I’m pretty sure most people have no idea how powerful she was behind the scenes,” Mighty said.

The original hope was to hold a groundbreaking ceremony timed with a national NAACP conference in Boston in July, but that conference will now be held virtually because of coronavirus restrictions.

The memorial will also recognize the 1965 civil rights rally that Martin Luther King Jr. led at the Parkman Bandstand before a crowd of more than 20,000.

Jonathan Evans, a senior architect with MASS Design, said the sculpture will be fabricated off-site and brought to the Common next year. He expects construction of the memorial will be done in early 2022.

Chris Cook, Boston’s chief of environment and open space, said surveyors should be working on the site by the end of June. Once the design work is done, he said, the project will go before the Boston Landmarks Commission for final approval.

“We were enthusiastic about the project even before the national discussion that is at the forefront right now around racial equity,” Cook said. “That has just raised the stakes even further about how important this is."

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In the business world, English is perhaps best known for his role in launching Kayak, the travel website, in 2004; it later went public and was acquired by Priceline for nearly $2 billion in 2013. English then cofounded Lola, another travel software firm, in 2015 and remains chief technology officer there.

In 2017, English took on a challenge that eluded others: building a prominent memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. that reflects on his time in Boston. The group he started eventually expanded its mission to include Coretta Scott King. The pair met in Boston while studying: He at Boston University, she at the New England Conservatory of Music. (BU honors MLK with a sculpture at Marsh Plaza, on Commonwealth Avenue.)

Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University and the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, called the progress on the Boston projects “wonderful news," noting the city is crucial to the Kings’ story.

“She was more politically experienced than Martin at the time,” he said.

Through the community process that led to the selection of “The Embrace” as the memorial, English said, King Boston heard people express a desire for more than just a statue to honor the Kings’ legacy. Thus, the idea for the center for economic justice was hatched.

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“It’s the community’s responsibility, it’s the residents [and] those who are in the corridors of power, it’s their responsibility to rise to the occasion and make sure that this center happens," said Brown, the Twelfth Baptist Church pastor. "If we don’t, if we continue to wring our hands in despair and maintain the status quo, this cycle of outrage and marches and all of what we’ve been seeing will continue.”

In particular, Brown wants to see the wealth gap between white and Black Bostonians tracked closely. He pointed to an often-quoted 2015 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that showed US-born Blacks in the Boston metro area have a median net worth of $8, compared to $247,500 for whites.

“Has that gap closed or has it widened?” Brown said. “Are there mechanisms in place that discourage a closing of that gap? And, if there are, can we address those to overcome it?”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.