In the city where the Kings met, ‘The Embrace’ memorializes their love and struggle

In the city where the Kings met, ‘The Embrace’ memorializes their love and struggle

The sculpture depicts four massive bronze arms wrapped together in an embrace, representing the love of the Kings, who met as students in Boston and began their careers here.

“It’s an exciting moment in the history of this city,” said Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, a co-chair of Embrace Boston, the organization that commissioned the sculpture.

The invitation-only unveiling drew a host of officials and public 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, waded through muddy grass and braved similar cold and rainy conditions that King endured on his famous 1965 march.

Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of Embrace Boston, fought back tears as she thanked the dozens of people who participated in the years-long 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 loud applause.

Mayor Michelle Wu said the sculpture invites the public to live out Kings’ vision, which is to “open our eyes to the injustice of racism and bring more people into the movement for equality.”

Arndrea Waters King, wife of Martin Luther King III, said society should 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 her causes.

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 loud cheers.

Hank Willis Thomas, the artist who created the sculpture in partnership with MASS Design Group, said he was inspired by the phrase “Love 360,” the nickname Yolanda Renee King gave her grandfather’s work.

“This work is about the ability of 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 included a 10-second countdown, after which the crowd of onlookers – including people watching from balconies at nearby apartment complexes – erupted in cheers as the massive bronze arms came into full view.

The “Embrace” is located in a 1965 Freedom Plaza on Boston Common, where the names of 69 local leaders, ranging from Melnea Cass to Jean McGuire, are inscribed in stone.

Among those in the crowd was Shey Jaboin, who traveled from the North Shore to witness the unveiling. She said the ceremony took her back to the civil rights movement and other moments in the city’s history.

“Boston has always been a place of hope, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Jaboin, who was born around the time of King’s Boston march. “I think the monument has opened up Boston even more, and … I hope it continues to bring our hearts and love and our hands to continue to do this kind of work.”

The monument has been in the works for five years—or decades, depending on when one starts the clock—and has faced delays due to challenges from the mundane (allowing obstructions) to the cataclysmic (a pandemic).

10/ there was a long round of applause as the son of king mlk iii, with his wife Arndrea and daughter Yolanda, took the stage.

recounting how his parents first met here, mlk iii said that “in a way, I owe my very existence to Boston.”

— tiana woodard (@tianarochon) January 13, 2023

But this week, the mood in several events leading up to Friday’s revelation was triumphant. At a gym at the Roxbury YMCA 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 claiming the Kings as hometown heroes.

“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 the age of 22 to pursue a doctorate at Boston University. He soon began preaching at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. “He was the prince of the church,” said 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. The king somehow announced that he was in the market for a wife.”

“I don’t know how else to put it,” he added with a laugh. “The relationship was a little more formalized than it is today.”

A church secretary, Mary Powell, created the young Martin Luther King with Coretta Scott, a student at the New England Conservatory, Brown said. In 1953, they married in Scott’s home state of Alabama, but “it was in Boston that we began our married life together,” King wrote in his autobiography.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Kings memorial in Boston, despite its size, is intimate — an image of two lovers embracing in the midst of a lifelong struggle for justice.

The hug was inspired by a photo of a hug the Kings shared when they learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Lane Turner/ Globe Staff

The sculpture was inspired by a photo of a hug the Kings shared when they learned Martin Luther King had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Embrace Boston began at the site of a very different King monument. On a 2017 business trip to San Francisco, Boston tech entrepreneur Paul English 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 nationalist talk and xenophobia and racism that made me really worried about the country,” he said. Walking through the San Francisco memorial inspired him to try to build his own version of Boston here.

He soon teamed up with Walker and Brown and pledged $1 million of his own money to the effort.

There were debates about where to place the King’s 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 downtown where residents and visitors would be most likely to encounter it.

The debate ended up shifting and expanding the focus of Embrace Boston. The group plans to build an arts center and concert venue as part of an ongoing development project on a vacant lot across the street from Boston Police headquarters in Lower Roxbury.

Paris Jeffries sees Friday’s revelation as a symptom of broader change in Boston. The city has now had two consecutive black mayors, he said, and the City Council recently voted unanimously to study reparations for black Bostonians.

“Ten years ago this would not have happened,” said Paris Jeffries. “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 an America Reporter staff member covering black neighborhoods. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @tianarochon. Mike Damiano can be reached at [email protected].

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