Chesto Means Business

King Boston seeks corporate donors to make memorial and economic justice center a reality

Nonprofit aims to convince 25 organizations to give $250,000 apiece

King Boston expects to need about $9 million to pay for "The Embrace" and the plaza where it will sit, on the Tremont Street side of Boston Common. Rendering Courtesy of King Boston

Several seven-figure donations from local philanthropists have pushed the nascent effort to build an MLK memorial on Boston Common well past its original fund-raising goal.

But with more to accomplish, it’s time for the Boston business community to step up.

The King Boston initiative is embarking on a new campaign to target companies and large nonprofit institutions. The goal this time: to raise $250,000 apiece from 25 organizations by May. Some corporate donors, such as MFS Investment Management and State Street, have chipped in already. However, King Boston executive director Imari Paris Jeffries had been waiting for the national and state elections to be over before ramping up the effort.

King Boston has garnered nearly $9 million in pledges so far, well above the initial goal of $6 million. But Paris Jeffries won’t be satisfied until he gets the total up to $15 million.

The memorial to honor Martin Luther King, his wife, Coretta Scott King, and the civil rights activists' formative time in Boston will end up costing much more than initially expected. The projected price now hovers around $9 million for the sculpture of intertwined arms and the plaza where it will sit, planned for the Tremont Street side of the Common.

And the work won’t end there. As MLK Boston founder Paul English solicited input, the tech entrepreneur realized a statue alone wouldn’t be enough.

So, King Boston has something else in mind: a center for economic justice. This would be an all-in-one museum, events space, small-business incubator, and research hub in or near Nubian Square, the geographic heart of Boston’s Black community. Early on, the thinking was to house it in the Boston Public Library’s Roxbury branch. But eventually Paris Jeffries wants to go further by occupying a separate, permanent space — either by renovating an existing structure or building a new one. (A city-owned parcel on Melnea Cass Boulevard is one possible home.)

There will be staff salaries to pay, and capital expenses. Paris Jeffries has set his sights on another $6 million goal, this one to support the King Center. (At least $2 million of existing pledges are reserved for the center so far.) He hopes to hire a deputy director and a researcher in the coming weeks, as well as someone to launch a festival linked to the memorial’s completion, potentially in August 2022.

Meanwhile, the corporate world is still trying to figure out its role in addressing the inequities highlighted during the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by George Floyd’s death in May.

Sounds like an ideal time to raise money for the King Center, right? It’s not so simple. King Boston has new competition for funds, and not just from the worthy COVID-19 relief efforts. There are also initiatives aimed at the racial wealth gap, such as the New Commonwealth and Boston Racial Equity funds.

English and Paris Jeffries are banking on businesses like Cooley. The national law firm, whose biggest office is in Silicon Valley, is one of their first corporate donors. On top of its pledge of $250,000 over five years, Cooley will also provide pro bono legal services.

Pat Mitchell, cofounder of Cooley’s Boston office, sees parallels to the startups his firm normally advises: fund-raising, real estate, employment, intellectual property. Mitchell likes to refer to King Boston as a “startup for justice.” (King Boston is part of the Boston Foundation for now but will be spun out eventually.)

Mitchell said the contribution fits within the law firm’s focus on diversity and inclusion. He also sees it as part of a broader effort to improve Boston’s talent pool by making the city more welcoming to people of color.

The accounting giant Deloitte also made the $250,000 pledge, but with a twist. Its plan is to raise the money through donations from Deloitte’s 2,500 Boston employees. Managing partner Kevin McGovern said he’s confident it can be done over five years. This will be one of the causes included in the firm’s annual workplace giving campaign, which kicks off Monday. (McGovern has also taken a seat on King Boston’s advisory board, as have representatives for Cooley and State Street.)

Contributing was a no-brainer for MFS vice president Colleen Powell, and her boss, MFS executive chair Rob Manning. Powell said many people don’t realize just how important Boston was to the Kings: The couple met here, and much of MLK’s theology was formed while studying at Boston University and preaching at Twelfth Baptist Church.

To the mutual fund company, she said, there might be no smarter long-term investment in the city than the King project. Many issues that the Kings railed against persist to this day. But investing in MLK Boston, she said, means investing in a brighter future.

This project has evolved considerably from the time of its unveiling in 2017, when Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared his support. Others, including previous mayor Tom Menino, had tried to get an MLK memorial built in Boston, but those efforts fizzled out. (BU does have a sculpture to honor King that depicts a flock of doves in flight, “Free At Last.”) English had viewed a King memorial in San Francisco and thought Boston deserved its own. He kicked in $1 million to get things started.

The city hosted a contest and put out a call to artists around the world. The submissions poured in. Eventually, “The Embrace” by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group, was picked: four 22-foot-high bronze arms, entwined in a gesture of comfort and compassion.

Permitting proved to be trickier than expected, even with Walsh’s endorsement. The pandemic bogged things down further. Hopes for a groundbreaking in 2020 were dashed. But Paris Jeffries would like the final green light in time for King’s Jan. 15 birthday, when a dedication ceremony is expected. The memorial will be crafted off site and brought to Boston in 2022.

An assassin’s bullet felled King on April 4, 1968. He left a powerful legacy of equality, but one that remains unfinished. With MLK Boston, the city can take its own steps on the long march toward fulfilling that dream.


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