Last year, artist Simone Leigh represented the U.S. at what is widely considered the world's most important exhibition of contemporary…
'The Embrace' sculpture celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy in Boston
Nick Schifrin: On this Martin Luther King Day, we have a look at a new memorial in Boston honoring Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
It has been five years in the making, and the project honors their relationship and their dual civil rights legacy.
Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: In 1964, 35-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated his Nobel Peace Prize with an embrace of his wife, Coretta.
Now another celebration based on that moment, the unveiling of a 20-foot-tall 19-ton bronze sculpture called The Embrace depicting four intertwined arms on Boston Common, the nation's oldest public park.
Jha Amazi was part of the architectural team.
Jha D. Amazi: Director, Public Memory and Memorials Lab: It is very hard for me, as a daughter of Boston, to maintain composure, and not ball out, as a young Black architect educated in this city, to participate in a moment like this, where we honor the Black experience, Black joy, Black love.
Jeffrey Brown: King had important ties to the city. He attended Boston University, earning a Ph.D. from the School of Theology. And this is where he met and began dating the young Coretta. The city was also a locus of his civil rights work.
In 1965, he led a march from Roxbury to Boston Common, one of the first such marches in the North. At Friday's opening ceremony, Martin Luther King III and his daughter, MLK's granddaughter Yolanda Renee King, were among the speakers.
Martin Luther King III, Civil Rights Leader: They both loved this city because of its proud heritage as a hotbed of the abolitionist movement and its unique intellectual, and educational resources.
And, indeed, Boston became the place where they forged a partnership that would change America.
Yolanda Renee King, Granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr.: I love this monument. I also see the love and strength and unity in these hands and how they symbolize a beautiful marriage and partnership.
And it was one that changed the world. There is a sense in which we are all children and grandchildren of Martin and Coretta Scott King.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Yolanda Renee King: We are all challenged to carry forward their unfinished work.
Jeffrey Brown: Earlier today, I spoke to Hank Willis Thomas, the artist who designed the sculpture, and Marie st. Fleur, the former head of Embrace Boston, the nonprofit group that spearheaded the memorial.
Well, thank you both so much for joining us.
Hank Willis Thomas, you were inspired by that photograph. What did you -- what did you see in it that you wanted to bring out?
Hank Willis Thomas, Artist: Well, when I saw that photograph of Dr. and Mrs. King on the day that he received the Nobel Prize, I saw this incredible bond, and that it wasn't just his celebration. It was their celebration.
I saw the warmth of the hug and the power of that embrace. And I saw her strength literally holding him up throughout all of these different trials and tribulations. And the fact that she was with him every step of the way, and then carried on the legacy after he was assassinated was something that I really felt needed to be highlighted with this work.
Jeffrey Brown: Notably, no faces, no full bodies. It's, in that sense, not a traditional monument.
I have seen some pushback, people questioning the way you approached this. Were you thinking of doing something different? How did you approach it?
Hank Willis Thomas: I think too much burden is placed on Dr. and Mrs. King and people that we see like them to do the work that's important to changing society. And I wanted to make a piece that both acknowledged and highlighted them, but also was a call to action, a call to love for everyone to embrace someone else and to kind of honor them by stepping into their power, their beauty and their message.
And so The Embrace is as much about the potential that exists in each and every one of us as it is about Dr. and Mrs. King.
Jeffrey Brown: Marie St. Fleur, Martin Luther King Jr. is, of course, well remembered often for his work in the South, for the March on Washington, the "I Have a Dream" speech, perhaps less so for his time and his work in the North.
How important was Boston to him? And why is Boston honoring him now?
Marie st. Fleur, Former Executive Director, King Boston: Well, the wonderful thing is, it started here, right, because this is here where Martin and Coretta met.
It is here that we have this full love story that not simply celebrate Martin and Coretta, but love stories that happens in Black community, and that not simply in Boston, but across this country and this nation. And what it does is, it tells -- shows you the first super couple who were able to come together, not only for career, but for love of community, for love of country, and to galvanize a movement happened right here in Boston, and very few people knew that.
And it celebrates that for us, as communities of color, as Black people, that we are more than just our struggle. We are love. We are joy. We are all of that. And that, to me, gets represented at the center of the oldest park in this country.
Jeffrey Brown: He would have seen that Boston of the past, though, right? He would have experienced some of that racial tension that existed in the city.
Marie st. Fleur: Absolutely.
Jeffrey Brown: What did he experience? And how does that play into what you see today?
Marie st. Fleur: Well, I think he saw the poverty that existed in Boston at the time, particularly in communities of color. He saw the pain, the unemployment. He saw the lack of education that was -- and that was inequitable education that was being offered in public schools in the city of Boston at the time.
He saw it, and he wanted to do something about it. And so I do think that what -- while it may have -- show up differently than it did in the South, a lot of what was happening in the South, it was more subliminally present in the North. And he was willing to meet with us, to dine with us, to plan with us, and then to act.
And, as you know, he came back after and came back and led that march and actually addressed a bicameral session of the legislature to really challenge us to think differently about how we approach the issues of race right here in the city of Boston.
Jeffrey Brown: And, Hank, Hank Willis Thomas, I mean, we are in this moment where we're thinking a lot about how we remember history, about monuments and memorials.
I know you have -- I know you have been involved in making public sculptures before. Now you're taking on this. How do you think about what should be in the public, what we should look at and how we should remember important figures and history?
Hank Willis Thomas: As a society, we have a negativity bias. We seem to only highlight things that are either in us that are, like, horrible.
Most of the things that we have monuments to in our society are monuments to heroes of war and victims of war. We don't have very many monuments to love and to the community. And so I really feel like it's time in the 21st century to reconsider what the role of public space is and why we gather around them.
The Embrace is an opportunity for people to actually come together and really reflect on the power of any two people coming together and embracing and the potential of that to change the society for the better.
Jeffrey Brown: And, Marie St. Fleur, this is the oldest public space in the country. And in thinking about how we remember our past, what is it that you want people just walking through Boston Common to take from this?
Marie st. Fleur: I know Hank has brought us such joy.
I have to tell you, it's complex, right? What I want them to understand is that Boston belongs to all of us. And I think, for me, that is -- it's The Embrace, as well as Freedom Plaza. It's a recognition, again, it's uplifting, in that it talks about joy, it talks about togetherness, and it talks about our ability to overcome.
And, at the same time, it recognizes that we didn't do it alone and that Dr. King, when he was here, and Coretta, when he was here -- when she was here, they worked with a community of people. And the people that he worked with that really impacted and tried and really drove change in the city of Boston are reflected on that common as well.
Dr. King and Coretta Scott King were global citizens. Whoever walks into our city tomorrow will be able to see themselves, see their struggle, see their joy, see their love right there in the middle of America's most famous square, the Boston Common.
Jeffrey Brown: Marie St. Fleur, Hank Willis Thomas, thank you both very much.
Hank Willis Thomas: Thanks for having us.
Marie st. Fleur: Thank you, Jeff.