More than 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. led 20,000 people on a freedom march through Boston Common, hundreds of community leaders and residents gathered there Friday for the unveiling of “The Embrace,” a 22-foot-high bronze sculpture memorializing his and Coretta Scott King’s legacy and their lasting imprint on Boston.
The memorial is as much a tribute to the civil rights icons as a corrective to the city’s history, with its notoriety for racial strife, by placing the Kings within the pantheon of Boston’s great American leaders, and it includes appreciations of other figures who have worked to advance racial justice and equity here.
The sculpture depicts four massive bronze arms wrapped together in an embrace, representing the love of the Kings, who met while students in Boston and began their careers here.
“It’s a thrilling moment in the history of this city,” said the Rev. Liz Walker of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, a co-chair of Embrace Boston, the organization that commissioned the sculpture.
The invitation-only unveiling attracted a mass of public officials and figures, including Martin Luther King III, the Kings’ eldest son; actress Alfre Woodard; US Attorney Rachael Rollins; and Senator Ed Markey.
Guests huddled in tents, trudged through muddy grass, and braved the similar chilly, drizzling conditions King endured in his famous march in 1965.
Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of Embrace Boston, fought back tears as he thanked the dozens of people who took part in the multiyear effort to make the memorial a reality.
“I’m just grateful to give back to the city that gave me so much,” Paris Jeffries said to resounding applause.
Mayor Michelle Wu said the sculpture invites the public to live out the Kings’ vision, which is “to open our eyes to the injustice of racism and bring more people into the movement for equity.”
Arndrea Waters King, wife of Martin Luther King III, said society must honor not only the work of Martin Luther King Jr. but that of Coretta Scott King, who supported her husband’s every move and championed causes of her own.
Coretta Scott King “was a reminder that the magic of little Black girls will no longer be ignored, and the power of Black women can no longer be denied,” Waters King said to thunderous cheers.
Hank Willis Thomas, the artist who created the sculpture in partnership with the MASS Design Group, said he was inspired by the phrase “Love 360,″ the nickname that Yolanda Renee King gave to her grandfather’s work.
“This work is really about the capacity for each of us to be enveloped in love, and I feel enveloped in love every time I hear the names and see the faces of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King,” he said.
The unveiling of the sculpture involved a 10-second countdown, after which the crowd of spectators — including people watching from balconies in nearby apartment complexes — erupted into cheers, as the massive bronze arms came into full view.
“The Embrace” is situated in a new “1965 Freedom Plaza” on Boston Common where the names of 69 local leaders, ranging from Melnea Cass to Jean McGuire, are emblazoned in stone.
Among those in the crowd was Shey Jaboin, who traveled from the North Shore to see the unveiling. She said the ceremony brought her back to the civil rights movement and other moments in the city’s history.
“Boston has always been a hopeful place, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Jaboin, who was born around the time of King’s march in Boston. “I think the monument has opened Boston even more, and ... I hope it keeps bringing our hearts, love, and hands to keep doing this kind of work.”
The monument has been in the works for five years — or for several decades, depending on when one starts the clock — and has faced delays due to challenges from the mundane (permitting hurdles) to the cataclysmic (a pandemic).
But this week, the mood at several events leading up to Friday’s unveiling was triumphal. In a gym at the Roxbury YMCA on Thursday morning, Jeffries addressed a crowd of residents, donors, and elected officials at an event celebrating the Kings. “Philadelphia has the Liberty Bell, New York has the Statue of Liberty, and we have ‘The Embrace’,” he said.
The sculpture represents, among other things, the city of Boston staking a claim to the Kings as hometown heroes.
“The Kings met here,” Walker said. “This is the place, it seems to me, that the seeds were planted for the movement.”
King came to Boston in 1951 at 22 years old to pursue a doctoral degree at Boston University. He soon began preaching at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. “He was the prince of the church,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a pastor at Twelfth Baptist and a co-chair of Embrace Boston.
About a month after joining the church, Brown said, “Dr. King sort of announced he was in the market for a wife.”
“I don’t know how else to say it,” he added, chuckling. “Courtship was a little more formalized than it is today.”
A church secretary, Mary Powell, set up the young Martin Luther King with Coretta Scott, a student at the New England Conservatory, Brown said. In 1953, they married in Alabama, Scott’s home state, but “it was in Boston that we began our married life together,” King wrote in his autobiography.
It is, perhaps, fitting then that Boston’s memorial to the Kings is, despite its scale, intimate — an image of two people in love embracing in the midst of a lifelong struggle for justice.
The sculpture was inspired by a photo of a hug the Kings shared when they learned that Martin Luther King had won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
Embrace Boston got its start at the site of a very different monument to King. On a 2017 business trip to San Francisco, Paul English, the Boston tech entrepreneur, walked through that city’s sprawling Martin Luther King Memorial. At the time, he was reeling from the election of Donald Trump and the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“There was a lot of nationalistic talk and xenophobia and racism that made me really anxious for the country,” he said. The walk through the San Francisco memorial inspired him to try to build Boston’s own version here.
He soon partnered with Walker and Brown and pledged $1 million of his money to the effort.
There was debate about where to put the King monument. Some lobbied for Nubian Square in Roxbury, a predominantly Black neighborhood where King had deep roots. But English and Walker thought it should be in the city’s center where residents and visitors alike would be more likely to encounter it.
The debate ended up shifting and expanding Embrace Boston’s focus. The group plans to build an arts center and concert venue as part of an ongoing development project at a vacant lot across the street from Boston Police headquarters in Lower Roxbury.
Paris Jeffries sees Friday’s unveiling as a symptom of broader change in Boston. The city has now had two consecutive mayors of color, he said, and the City Council recently voted unanimously to study reparations for Black Bostonians.
“Ten years ago that wouldn’t have happened,” Paris Jeffries said. “Twenty years ago, forget it, impossible. This is one of the few times I can remember in our city that many of us, all of us, are on the same sheet of music.”
Globe correspondent Ashley Soebroto contributed to this report.
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Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @tianarochon. Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.