WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Martin Luther King Jr.’s hand, shimmering and sedan-sized, lay on a concrete floor at the Walla Walla Foundry, its rippling bronze hide a patchwork of seams and welds. Above it loomed a 22-foot curving steel armature — the bent arm of his wife, Coretta Scott King — making the hand seem almost small.
On the central plains of Washington state in late July, this was the state of “The Embrace,” the memorial monument to Martin and Coretta to be unveiled on Boston Common in January. It had been four years since the artist Hank Willis Thomas sketched out his idea for the first time at the invitation of Boston-based MASS Design Group. This summer, the result was huge, and suddenly very real.
A group from King Boston, the nonprofit that had willed the memorial into being, had come for an in-person look. They had all seen countless digital renderings and sketches and tabletop models, but no amount of imagining prepared them for this.
“I teared up. I didn’t think I would,” said Imari Paris Jeffries, King Boston’s executive director, standing beneath the towering landmark-in-waiting. After a lengthy tour of the Foundry, the group had streamed into a hangar-like building where “The Embrace” was the sole occupant. Cheers and applause followed an initial chorus of gasps, then settled into a dumbfounded giddiness that Jeffries struggled to put into words.
“Knowing we’re building something that generations of folks will experience, and experience differently than we do now,” he said, “that’s the energy I think we’re all feeling.”
“The Embrace” had been evocative from the start, whether on paper or on screen. Martin and Coretta met in Boston in 1952 while students, before the common purpose of justice overtook their lives. Thomas’s concept — a three-dimensional fragment of a 1964 photograph of the Kings entwined after Martin’s Nobel Peace Prize win, his hands overlapping on her shoulder — drew from the intimacy of their relationship, not their public stature. Thomas wanted to flash-freeze a moment of raw emotion — joy bound up with exhaustion — as much as the couple themselves. At the Foundry, that feeling crystallized into 40,000 pounds of steel and bronze.
On the Common near Tremont Street, the permanent site of “The Embrace” is still under construction, with the unveiling set for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But King Boston has shifted from the consuming priority of getting the piece built to making it a symbol of the organization’s larger mission of racial equity and social justice. Jeffries, who was hired in June of 2020, has been fund-raising for a Center for Economic Justice in Roxbury. Plans for its bricks-and-mortar home will be announced later this year. The center’s first piece of research, “The Harm Report,” analyzing racial inequity in the city in areas such as housing and health care, comes out later this fall.
The Walla Walla trip offered the chance to savor a moment some thought might never come. “Of course, there were folks saying all the usual things: ‘You’ll never get it built. You’ll never get it in Boston Common,’” said Reverend Jeffrey Brown, one of King Boston’s co-chairs. “But it just kept moving.”
While we spoke, the group milled around various fragments of the piece, marveling at its details: the pie plate-sized buttons on Martin’s cuff, the beads of Coretta’s bracelet like a string of softballs, the shimmer of raw bronze yet to receive its final dulled patina. Brown’s eyes stayed fixed on the incomplete structure, as if it might vanish should he dare to look away. “It’s gorgeous,” he said. “It truly is.”
Thomas had been a conspicuous absence in Walla Walla, his travel plans waylaid when his two young children tested positive for COVID-19. In August, we met at his Brooklyn studio to catch up. I described the King Boston group’s elation in Walla Walla 10 days earlier, and a grin crept across his face. “I kind of love the idea that you saw it before me,” he said.
In the studio that day was Michael Murphy, MASS Design Group’s co-founder and CEO, who had brought Thomas into “The Embrace” project four years before. Between them, the long arc of the memorial’s journey took shape.
Thomas and MASS Design Group had collaborated before, notably on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, where the firm included Thomas’s stirring “Raise Up,” a series of bronze sculptures of a Black man emerging from the earth, arms held high. When the Boston competition landed on Murphy’s desk in 2018, he turned to Thomas to create the memorial centerpiece.
They had just worked together on a King memorial library competition in Cleveland, which they hadn’t won; when Murphy called, Thomas already had a raft of research prepared. His studio produced preliminary sketches in days, and the two met at a Brooklyn bar to review them.
Thomas and his studio drafted several loose concepts, but one stood out. “I remember thinking, ‘Is this the one?’” he said and laughed, acting out the moment he showed Murphy “The Embrace” for the first time. “It felt a little bit — I don’t want to say scary, but there was something about the enigmatic elements of it that stuck.”
Murphy agreed. “We’d been working on memorials all over the country,” he said. ”This really resonated — it struck a very specific chord of doing something that really hadn’t been done before.”
It was clear to them both: “The Embrace” was their most powerful idea. Just as clear was their belief that it had the least chance of winning. “We weren’t showing their faces,” Thomas said, and shrugged.
Public art too often tries to please everyone and ends up satisfying no one. “The Embrace” made no such compromise.
They were surprised when they were selected by the King Boston jury as one of five finalists in 2018. Then in March 2019, after a swell of public support, “The Embrace” was chosen as the winner.
It was in many ways a vindication — both of the piece, and the notion that a memorial, made well, can have evolving meaning as a community lives with it.
“People will take their time with it, if they need to,” Murphy said. “But it will take on its own life. That’s the power of Hank’s work.”
Thomas, 46, grew up in Washington, D.C., where his mother, the artist and historian Deborah Willis, was a driver of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He would often wander the monuments on the National Mall and feel the weight of history. “What always struck me was that all these memorials were related to war and violence,” he said. “But none of them were about love.” As the site of the Kings’ youthful romance, Boston was a chance to change that: In Thomas’s hands, their memory here would be rooted in their intimate bond.
The project seemed to evolve alongside the city itself. Memorials to Martin Luther King Jr. had been in the air for years. In Walla Walla, Karin Goodfellow, Boston’s director of public art, told me the city had broached the idea time and again, dating back to the Thomas Menino administration in the 1990s. More recently, she recalled being in meetings where the idea of a King memorial would come up, “but it never took off, because we didn’t have any money. We weren’t investing in public art in the city, anywhere.”
It took King Boston to finally nudge the project into reality. Goodfellow remembers Joyce Linehan, then the city’s chief of policy and planning, calling her into her office to meet Paul English, King Boston’s founder, in 2017. “She just said, ‘This is Paul, and he wants to do this. Can you help him figure it out?’” Goodfellow said.
English’s group had what past efforts did not: fund-raising muscle. With the Boston Foundation as its financial sponsor, it set a goal of raising $12 million for operations and programming, with about half of that dedicated to the memorial. By March 2019, it had already raised $6 million, enough to push the project forward. The city helped with the selection process and the complex navigation of securing a spot on the Common. It also garnered a $200,000 grant from the Mass Cultural Council for the Memorial Plaza. With the city involved, the project, initially called MLK Boston, shifted to include Martin and Coretta both.
Jeffries was hired with the memorial project underway, and things took off. King Boston has now raised almost $25 million, making the memorial just a beginning: Jeffries is set to launch another capital campaign in 2023, for $60 million to build The Embrace Center, which Jeffries envisions as an intellectual, cultural, and community hub. The building, in Roxbury, will house the Center for Economic Justice, a performance space, a museum dedicated to civil rights themes, and an exhibition space for BIPOC artists. It will also be home to the Embrace Ideas Festival, launched this past summer.
If “The Embrace” is the symbol of King Boston’s mission, then the center is the ideal it represents in practical form. I met Jeffries recently inside the construction site on the Common, where workers were installing hundreds of diamond-shaped paving stones for the site’s memorial plaza one by one, using a crane. Embedded in the plaza are more than 60 names, imprinted in bronze, that broaden the civil rights struggle in Boston to a diverse community of leaders, many of them unacknowledged over the years.
“The Embrace” is a revolutionary memorial in more than just its enigmatic design. It diffuses credit across communities and generations in the pursuit of justice, and deflates a central conceit of memorialization itself: that any one person can make change alone.
Being on the Common is important, Jeffries said: “Monuments are about spatial justice,” he said. “There are very few markers that represent BIPOC people in this city, but you can stub your toe over there where John Adams played hopscotch.”
It will be just as important for “The Embrace” to evolve into an enduring symbol of the center’s ongoing work. “When I arrived, the job was to build the monument,” Jeffries said. “But I talked about this with Hank from the start: Neither of us wanted the memorial to be just a statue. And I’m an activist, so the idea of bringing it to life was natural for me.”
With “The Embrace” as the organization’s centerpiece, Jeffries imagines a broad appeal. “We’re not calling people out, we’re calling people in,” he said. “‘The Embrace,’ ultimately, is hopeful. It’s about possibilities — what the city can be, while acknowledging its past.”
In Walla Walla, Goodfellow and Brown were surveying the crook of Coretta’s towering arm, still largely a skeleton of steel awaiting its bronze skin. “There was talk for years of a King memorial in Dorchester, or in Roxbury,” Goodfellow said. “To put it on the Common, a commitment had to be made — that the Center for Economic Justice would be built. Because if you’re just dropping an artwork and walking away, then what are you doing?”
Brown agreed. “We knew we had to put action behind it,” he said. “That was always the point.” Goodfellow suggested “The Embrace” was a model in ways that transcended its bold form. “It really proposes a good way of thinking about all our memorials,” she said. “Boston has never really had a symbol, that one powerful thing that you always think of when you think of the city — like the Statue of Liberty in New York,” she said. “It does now.”
In a few minutes, the King Boston group would be gathered up and herded to their bus, off to celebrate at some local vineyards. As the group massed towards the exit, an idea came up: Shouldn’t Brown and Jeffries leave some kind of mark?
A hurried search turned up a Sharpie, and the two men used it to sign the steel armature soon to be sheathed in bronze, their names forever present, and out of sight.
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.