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Adrian Walker

Boston’s ‘Embrace’ of MLK is moving forward

“The Embrace” memorial on Boston Common will be surrounded by open space.
“The Embrace” memorial on Boston Common will be surrounded by open space.(Hank Willis Thomas)

Boston’s belated embrace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a powerful local symbol has moved a huge step closer to fruition.

After a lengthy public process, King Boston, the nonprofit group working to place a memorial to King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, on Boston Common, has picked a winning design, one meant to evoke the Kings’ legacy of promoting unity.

“The Embrace” was the heavy favorite all along, the first choice of both the general public, which had a chance to weigh in last year, and an arts panel that helped guide the final selection. It didn’t hurt that the winning design might have been the only one among the finalists that could clearly be executed within the budget of $3 million to $4 million set aside for the memorial.

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Although the winning design wasn’t my personal favorite, its depiction of hands locked in an embrace effectively represents the notion of King’s mission as one of unity and inclusion, in the service of collective progress.

“I’ve been working on this project now for a year and a half, and this is a huge milestone,” said Paul English, who has spearheaded the project, getting it going by donating $1 million of his own money.

The King memorial has quietly become a model of how to get a project done with minimal public discord. English — a tech entrepreneur who has never been involved with a public effort like this — quickly recognized the importance of community buy-in. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has enthusiastically supported the project. King Boston’s expanding agenda, which now aims to include a center in Roxbury devoted to social and economic issues, also helped to broaden its appeal.

English says the sculpture will take 12 to 18 months to build. By that timetable, sometime in 2020 the new sculpture should be a striking feature of the Common, which is set for a major and much-needed face lift. Significantly, the sculpture will be placed near the spot where King delivered a speech in his only major appearance in Boston, in 1965.

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The Kings met in Boston while students.
The Kings met in Boston while students.(Gene Harrick/Associated Press/File 1956)

The idea of a Boston memorial to the Kings, who met here as students, has a surprisingly long history. Boston University — King’s doctoral alma mater — has had a monument near Marsh Chapel for years. Mayor Thomas M. Menino floated an idea for a more prominent one roughly a decade ago. But his idea never took off.

There never seemed to be the political will to invest in such a project, or sufficient momentum to honor someone whose ties to Boston were, in all honesty, tenuous. The sense that this was merely a place he passed through on the road to glory always seemed to dampen enthusiasm.

English came to it after finding himself moved by a visit to a King Memorial in San Francisco. And his enthusiasm is propelling him to further fund-raising: The $6 million raised so far is several million dollars short of the total cost of his plans.

I’m glad that the idea has expanded in scope beyond a sculpture. The idea for a social-justice program based in Roxbury is at an early stage of conception, as English readily concedes. But honoring King can be more dynamic than simply plopping down a piece of public art where lots of people will see it.

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English says the work of the center will ultimately bring higher-paying jobs to Roxbury and Dorchester. He says it is inspired by King’s economic activism at the end of his life, exemplified by his Poor People’s Campaign.

Does Boston need another memorial? There are those who would argue that it doesn’t, and they have a point. It would be hard to name an American city that has more lovingly chronicled its past than this one.

But King’s will be the least parochial of Boston monuments. Ultimately, it will honor a vision: of unity, of surmounting superficial differences, of finding common ground.

We certainly haven’t had too much of that.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at adrian.walker@globe.com.