Winning design announced for monument to Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King
It will rise above Boston Common northeast of the Parkman Bandstand, an immense, undulating form whose gleaming surface will reflect trees and passersby while glowing with a fiery shimmer, as four 22-foot-high bronze arms entwine in a gesture of comfort and healing.
More than 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination at a Memphis motel, and more than 60 years after King met his future spouse, Coretta Scott, through a mutual friend at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church, a Boston monument to the civil rights leader is one step closer to fruition.
King Boston, the organization established to memorialize the couple’s local legacy, plans to announce Monday it has selected “The Embrace,” by artist Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group, after reviewing 126 submissions and whittling them down to five finalists.
“I think it’s going to become one of the most iconic pieces of public art in the city,” Paul English, cochairman of King Boston, said by phone on Sunday. “Everybody’s going to be drawn to it, and they’ll say, ‘Why is this here? Why does Boston have a memorial to the Kings?’”
Nearby signs will help visitors explore the local ties of Martin Luther King Jr., who earned a doctorate in theology at Boston University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1955 and preached at Twelfth Baptist, and of Coretta Scott King, who received a bachelor’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.
Designing the monument was both “a huge honor and an incredible responsibility,” Thomas said Sunday. He said he envisioned its interlocking arms after studying photos of the Kings and seeing how, even in highly public moments, “there was also an intimacy between the two of them.”
Michael Murphy, founding principal of MASS Design Group, said his staff worked with Thomas and his team to create a space around the sculpture that visitors can enter to consider the Kings’ accomplishments, as well as those of others working toward justice and equality.
“Their bond was the seed of an entire social change movement, but so many other people were involved,” he said.
Because the Kings’ mission remains incomplete, Thomas said, he hopes visitors to the monument will consider how they can participate, rather than “putting all the burden on these people who are now no longer living,” as visitors might at other monuments.
“We believe that monuments need to force us to do something, force us to participate with their own existence,” Murphy said.
“The Embrace” was the choice of both the art committee selecting the design and of members of the public who commented on the finalists, according to organizers. (It also won an unscientific poll of Globe readers.)
Mayor Martin J. Walsh praised its selection in a statement.
“I am proud to see a project selected that embodies the spirit of love and compassion that the Kings demonstrated throughout their lives,” Walsh said. He added that the memorial “will serve as a gathering space for people to come together to reflect on their remarkable impact on our society, while recommitting us to continue to fulfill their dream of equality for all each and every day.”
The idea of a prominent King memorial in Boston has been kicked around for years. More than a decade ago, then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino launched an effort, but it lost steam amid the global economic recession of the late 2000s.
The movement got a big boost in 2017, when English, a software entrepreneur who helped found Kayak.com, jump-started a $5 million fund-raising campaign by agreeing to kick in $1 million.
English has long been an admirer of King’s and was particularly inspired by an MLK memorial in San Francisco.
“I started reading Dr. King when I was 12 years old,” English said. “His words moved me. He describes a world I want to live in.”
English said “The Embrace” was the clear favorite among the five finalists, and it will be less expensive and easier to build than the other finalists.
“The committee was really moved by it,” English said. “They thought it was iconic. People would come to see it and take pictures and share it. You could imagine people hugging each other next to it.”
Because of the community’s input, the initiative expanded. King Boston now wants to raise up to $12 million, including $5 million for an endowment to create a center for economic justice in Roxbury and another $1 million endowment for the Twelfth Baptist Church. King Boston is also funding a 25-minute documentary on the Kings’ love story.
So far, English said, the initiative has raised $6 million.
He was surprised to realize how much passion for the project existed in the city, he said, and by the untapped knowledge about the Kings’ time here.
“There was pent-up demand,” English said. “We found a lot of people, particularly older people, who were aware of the history and have wanted the city to do something for decades.”
English said he already has the green light from City Hall. Construction designs now need to be done. But he expects the project can be completed within the next 18 months, dovetailing with renovations city officials had already planned for Boston Common.
Thomas and Murphy are eager to begin construction, but they said the monument won’t really be complete until visitors begin to interact with it.
“Everyone who comes to see this work of art,” Thomas said, “is actually going to be making it in that very moment.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the Boston University graduate school from which Martin Luther King Jr. earned his doctorate.
An earlier version included incorrect information about Martin Luther King Jr.’s graduate degree.