Boston has waited more than 50 years to build a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, his wife. It will have to wait one year more.
Everything’s fine: The public sculpture and plaza planned in their honor for Boston Common are fully funded and moving along, said Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of King Boston, the nonprofit that’s been shepherding the process since 2017. Just not quite as quickly as hoped.
“Some of it has been supply chain issues, some of it has been COVID not allowing us to meet in person and really get things right,” Jeffries said. But in the end, the mess-making of the pandemic has resulted, finally, in some “dumb luck,” as Jeffries puts it: The ceremonial unveiling of “The Embrace,” the towering 22-foot bronze sculpture created by the artist Hank Willis Thomas, will happen on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2023.
The 2023 unveiling date is a firm one — or as firm as any can be in these perpetually fluid times. Prior to the pandemic, King Boston had hoped the unveiling would take place in spring of this year. Then a year ago, they revised it to late fall. As they started bumping up against 2023, Jeffries said the team decided to do what made the most sense. “We didn’t see a strong reason for unveiling it on a random day in November or December,” he said. “At that point, why not wait for the day itself?”
The added weeks will also allow some padding in case the pandemic burns time unexpectedly again. Jeffries fully expects the piece to be on the ground in the Common by December, likely surrounded by barriers to preserve the big reveal.
The strategic delay also gives King Boston the chance to plan a host of programming around the unveiling, which Jeffries described as “First Night-y” type festivities, in reference to the city’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration.
When it does finally touch ground, it will mark the end of a process that reached its crescendo about three years ago when King Boston announced the winner of its international design competition: The artist Hank Willis Thomas, teamed with the Boston architectural firm MASS Design Group.
They were impeccably credentialed. MASS Design Group, working for the Equal Justice Initiative, had designed the powerful National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated to generations of enslaved Americans. Thomas, one of the most prominent Black artists working today, has always addressed the divisions of race and class in America with a critical absurdist’s eye.
Together, they conceived a circular plaza with a shimmering bronze monument at its heart. The plaza, with its triangular-tiled surface, is ringed by a “Peace Walk” highlighted in bronze. It centers on “The Embrace,” the towering bronze sculpture Thomas conceived of Martin and Coretta’s entwined arms and hands, taken from a photograph that captured the immediate moment after Martin learned he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
It’s an unconventional form, to be sure. Instead of the stoic couple locked arm in arm and gazing profoundly into the distance, the piece is a visual slice of their jubilant embrace made monumental and cast in alloy.
Jeffries said that while the memorial is on track, King Boston has plans for a new capital campaign to support the research center and museum it hopes to build in Roxbury, where the Kings met as students — he as a PhD student at Boston University’s School of Theology, and she attending New England Conservatory of Music as a vocalist.
Jeffries says King Boston won’t fall silent about “The Embrace,” waiting for the calendar to turn. The weeklong Embrace Festival, an array of performances and public talks centered on the project initially planned for the unveiling, will now take place the week leading up to the Juneteenth holiday this year, June 13-17. “Part of our work is to raise up symbols that are inclusive,” he said. “One of the things we’ve been talking about is, ‘How do you make Juneteenth a holiday that everyone feels part of it?’ It’s rooted in the Black community. But we want to figure out a way everyone can both celebrate and reflect. That’s what the overall Embrace concept has always been about.”