BROOKLINE — Local leaders and residents paid tribute to two African-American pioneers Sunday, as about 200 community members crowded inside Brookline Town Hall to unveil a sculpture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The installation was a tribute not only to King, who would have turned 90 this month, but also to its late creator: John Wilson was a sculptor, painter, and printmaker who grew up in Roxbury and lived for more than half a century in Brookline before his death there at 92 in January 2015.
Wilson would have been “ecstatic that the Town of Brookline is honoring him and his statue,” said his widow, Julia Wilson, 91, in an interview at Sunday’s celebration.
It was deeply meaningful to her, too, to see her husband’s work and King’s legacy celebrated by a town where they hadn’t always felt welcome as a biracial couple settling there with a young family in the 1960s, Julia Wilson told a reporter.
“It feels absolutely great that . . . in a sense they are trying, and in many ways expanding their sense of what is right and wrong,” she said. The sculpture, she said, serves as a powerful symbol of King’s work for equality and justice and the progress the nation has made on racial issues.
“So there’s hope for the future,” she added.
John and Julia Wilson’s daughter, Erica, 52, said the recognition for her late father “feels gratifying and overwhelming.”
“It’s something my dad would never have believed would happen,” said Erica Wilson, who lives in the Brookline home where she grew up watching her father read King’s books and create art that celebrated the civil rights leader’s achievements.
“He feels like a family member,” she said of King.
The sculpture installed in Town Hall is a 1982 scale model for a massive replica of King’s head that sits in Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Buffalo, N.Y. Placed atop a tall pedestal, the Brookline sculpture of King looks downward to meet a viewer’s gaze with a somber expression.
Wilson’s most celebrated work, a 3-foot-tall bust of King, is displayed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., where it became the first work of art honoring an African-American in the Capitol building upon its installation in 1986.
Years before King became an emblem of the civil rights movement, he was a student and a young man in love — in Boston.
In the 1950s, King earned his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University, where Wilson would come to teach drawing a decade later and remain for about two decades.
While studying at BU, King served as an assistant minister at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, where a mutual friend introduced him to his future wife, Coretta Scott, then a student at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Boston officials are working with a nonprofit group to plan an ambitious Boston Common monument to both Martin and Coretta King, but concerns about costs and durability have delayed an announcement of the winning design.
Wilson’s more modest King sculpture was donated to the Town of Brookline by the Committee to Commemorate John Wilson, which formed in 2017.
The committee raised money for the purchase through contributions from more than 300 community members, organizations, and businesses, with the cooperation of Wilson’s family and their representative, Martha Richardson Fine Art, a Newbury Street gallery.
Robert Sable, 76, donated to the effort to honor Wilson, who was his next-door neighbor for decades and, in Sable’s view, is long overdue for greater recognition as an artist and a man.
“John was such an . . . incredible gentleman, an incredible neighbor, just a person who everybody really, really admired,” he said.
Sable recalled the excitement his son felt as a 6-year-old on a family trip to Washington when he told the boy they would visit the King bust in the Capitol.
“He said, ‘Daddy, is Mr. Wilson famous?’ because he was a very unassuming man,” Sable recalled.
Many of their neighbors had been unaware of the accomplished artist in their midst, Sable said, but with the prominent installation of a sculpture in Town Hall, more and more Brookline residents will know Wilson’s work.
“I hope so,” Sable said. “It’s wonderful.”