The King Memorial, which is scheduled for installation on Boston Common sometime in 2022, has taken a dramatic turn.
That is to say, Boston’s planned monument to its most illustrious graduate student, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has become a far more ambitious venture, mirroring the social upheaval that has marked this year.
What began as a push to build a sculpture is growing into a more expansive social-justice organization. Paul English, the white tech entrepreneur who founded King Boston, has handed the reins to a Black man, and its agenda has grown. Besides the sculpture, a planned King Center in Roxbury will be joined by an annual festival of ideas celebrating — and examining — racial equity.
Donors are responding. Of the nearly $12 million the project has raised, over half has come in since June, including $1 million gifts earlier this month from the Barr Foundation and the Wagner Foundation.
Imari Paris Jeffries, 47, who was named executive director earlier this year, said this dramatic moment of reckoning with racial justice issues demanded thinking bigger about how to honor King’s legacy.
“The King values are really just the beginning,” Paris Jeffries said. “How do we contemporize that message? We’re honoring the Kings, who went to college here, and that’s fantastic. But what does it mean for Bostonians for that memorial to be here today?”
King Boston’s signature project remains “The Embrace,” the 22-foot sculpture that will be installed on the Common. Both the site and the design were the product of a lengthy public process that began as an effort to mark the time that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta, lived in Boston, where they met.
Their time in Boston, in the early 1950s, was seminal: Boston is where he earned a doctorate from Boston University and began to formulate many of the principles that would change the world over the following decade or so.
The planned memorial, originally conceived as a monument to Dr. King, and then to both of the Kings, will now honor Boston civil rights leaders as well.
Some of those honored will be those who took part in King’s only significant civil rights action in Boston itself. In 1965, he led a march from Roxbury to the State House, and addressed the Legislature.
“When King came here in ’65, they marched for poverty, racial equity, housing and education,” Paris Jeffries said. “And today those are still the issues. Instead of poverty, we’re talking about black wealth, brown wealth. We’re still talking about housing, we’re still talking about racial equity, and we’re still talking about education.”
In addition to the monument, King Boston’s portfolio now includes a research-oriented King Center, planned for Nubian Square in Roxbury, and Embrace Ideas, a weeklong festival centered on equity. To that end, King Boston is hoping to raise about $15 million all told, a sum well within reach, given its current trajectory.
“I think we’ve been pretty unapologetic about asking folks to give us money to interrogate racism, and less focused on raising money for a memorial,” Paris Jeffries said. “The memorial is just a physical symbolic representation of Boston’s values that we need [donors] help getting to.”
Leading this effort represents a big jump professionally for Paris Jeffries, whose prior experience has been in running far smaller nonprofits, like the Italian Home for Children.
He was attracted to the project, he says, partly for the opportunity to do more than oversee an art installation.
“They knew that a monument wasn’t going to be satisfying,” Paris Jeffries said. “So when Paul and I started talking about me coming on board, he said, ‘You’ve got to make this your own, and you’ve got to bring to it what it takes.’ ” So far, he has done just that.
A native of Tennessee, Paris Jeffries is an accidental Bostonian. He enlisted in the Army out of high school and found himself stationed at Fort Devens. His plan had been to go back to Tennessee when he left the Army in 1996, but instead he used his GI Bill benefits to attend UMass-Boston, where he is working on a doctorate.
Along the way, he lost his Southern accent and gained mentors like longtime activist Hubie Jones and former state Representative Marie St. Fleur, the former executive director of King Boston who recommended him for his new role.
“I was doing this work, but in the background,” Paris Jeffries said. “I was a Pip, I wasn’t Gladys Knight. This might be my Gladys Knight moment.”
As the city, and the nation, attempts to come to terms with its many shortcomings in dealing with race, it’s obvious that the opportunity to create a major nonprofit should mean more than putting up a sculpture. The twin crises of COVID and racial inequity have created an opportunity, and King Boston hopes to, well, embrace that. The challenge is to turn a moment into something lasting.
“I think we are wanting to make sure that we don’t return back to normal, post-vaccine” Paris Jeffries said. “We don’t want normal to occur. We want to keep the pressure on all of us to continue to interrogate how we’ve been socialized into racism, into dominant-culture supremacy.”