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Is Boston ready to ‘Embrace’ a different story?

Technicians worked to secure an elbow of "The Embrace" in November.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

At its heart, every monument is a story.

Can Boston tell a new story about itself?

That’s the big question raised by The Embrace: the imposing memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, unveiled Friday in a glitzy yet soulful ceremony on Boston Common.

Installed just steps from the start of the Freedom Trail, it now becomes a key component of the story Boston tells about itself.

Imari Paris Jeffries, that charismatic head of Embrace Boston, has spent a lot of time the past two years thinking about the stories that memorials tell.

For nearly 400 years, that story has been white, male, and Eurocentric. At long last, it has to make room for the rest of us.


“If a city was a memorial, Boston would be a memorial for America,” Paris Jeffries told me last week. “People come to Boston to get their American story reified. And if Boston can tell a different story about America, then America can start telling a different story about itself.”

The 22-foot bronze statue is stunning, impressive up close in a way photographs struggle to capture. (That’s partly due to the sheer mass of it.)

It is, of course, devoted to the origin story of the Kings. They met as students in Boston — he a Ph.D student at Boston University, she a student at the New England Conservatory of Music — before going on to change the world.

The monument was the brainchild of Paul English, the entrepreneur who was inspired by a memorial to Dr. King in San Francisco who thought Boston should have one of its own.

That was six years ago. And in the way these things happen, the mission would grow larger.

In a country that would be shaken by the murder of George Floyd, among others, and the quest for racial reckoning that would follow, The Embrace gradually became more than a statue.


There will eventually be an Embrace Center near Nubian Square that will connect King’s legacy with the ever-unfinished work of fighting for social change and racial and economic justice.

“I think in the conversations that I’m having, people are not talking about it as a statue anymore,” Paris Jeffries said. “People are contextualizing the Kings as the impetus of the memorial, but also why we need to have the memorial. I’m having more conversations around why we need to have the memorial and less about the memorial itself.”

The unveiling Friday was an event like nothing I’d ever been to in Boston. Just as Boston’s monuments are overwhelmingly white, so are most of its celebrations of itself. This was a radical departure from that, pointing the way to a different narrative.

From the MC duties of NBC10′s Latoyia Edwards to the stirring speeches by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and former governor Deval Patrick, the vibe of Boston celebration was unabashedly Black. Which, in itself, was a welcome change from a typical downtown celebration.

I was reminded that in the early days of this project, the very first controversy was where the monument should go. There was some sentiment for Roxbury, where King had preached in his student days. But English believed that placing a monument to racial justice in the center of the city would make a powerful statement. (Which is what I also thought, and wrote at the time.)


And now that it’s here, The Embrace feels like it is in exactly the right place.

There are a lot of statues in this town, and to think that one more can shake Boston’s self-image may be a lot to ask.

But part of our local reckoning with race is about coming to terms with a deep sense of segregation. Its impossible to come together without first being together. Friday’s unveiling was a testament to how that dream could become a reality.

In his only major Boston event, in 1965, Dr. King led a march from the Carter Playground in lower Roxbury to Boston Common, before speaking at the State House. It was a physical demonstration of how a bunch of distant Boston neighborhoods could be united — of how Boston could tell a different story of itself.

Decades later that challenge remains. If Boston is ready to embrace it.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.