If you’ve walked through the Boston Common recently, you may have noticed the ongoing construction. A few months from now, instead of steam shovels and sand piles, there will be a 20-foot high, multi-ton bronze sculpture of intertwined arms. Called The Embrace, the sculpture will be a celebration of both the civil rights movement and the love shared between two people who were front and center in the fight for racial justice and equal rights: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Those behind the sculpture gathered Wednesday at the Embrace Ideas Festival, a five-day arts and cultural event hosted by the organization King Boston. The mission of King Boston is to keep the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King alive, and that includes raising close to $10 million to build The Embrace. At Wednesday's event, local artists and civil rights activists reflected on how the Kings helped shape the Boston of today, the symbolism of the monument being erected in the Boston Common, and the power of love.

New York-based artist Hank Willlis Thomas, who designed the sculpture in collaboration with MASS Design Group, was among the speakers Wednesday. He expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share his art with Boston and the nation as a whole. With the monument to the Kings, he hopes to create a call to action, “even if that action is just a simple embrace.”

Hank Willis Thomas on the steps.jpg
Hank Willis Thomas sits on the steps of the ICA
Courtesy of Kirsten Daudelin

The public artwork is inspired by a photo of the couple embracing when Martin Luther King Jr. learned he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That image of love celebrates both their work and their tie to the region, which is comparably unknown compared to how large they loom in America’s history.

”Dr. King and Coretta Scott King could have never imagined when they were young people here in Boston that their love would be commemorated," Thomas said.

The civil rights leaders met in Boston in the early 1950s, when Coretta Scott King was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music and Martin Luther King Jr. was a doctoral student in theology at Boston University. The Boston that the Kings knew was a city rife with racial inequities. And after leaving the city to pursue his civil rights work, Martin Luther King Jr. returned to Boston a few times, including in 1965 to lead the Northeast's first civil rights march, going from Roxbury to the Boston Common and fight for school desegregation. Nearly 10 years later, Coretta Scott King picked up where he left off, furthering the cause by defending Boston busing before a crowd that had gathered on Boston Common — not far from where The Embrace will stand.

Boston Director of Public Art Karin Goodfellow said it's an important location to celebrate the Kings' legacy, “because the Boston Common is a place where we gather as a community to protest, to express celebration, to be with each other, to be with friends and family. It is a place where tourists come to visit and it really is an opportunity to tell the story of Boston.”

"This post-pandemic world has an opportunity for Boston to be the home of something else. And that could be culture and that could be inclusion and that could be justice."
Imari Paris Jeffries

The Embrace is scheduled to be installed in January 2023 to align with Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Embrace Ideas Festival attendee Joseph Okafur is looking forward to seeing it materialize. “It's a legacy that needs to be memorialized, and I'm so glad that it's being memorialized in a greater fashion and greater capacity."

While there are other memorials to Martin Luther King Jr. in the region — such as the "Free at Last " sculpture on Boston University's Marsh Plaza, and a bronze sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Brookline Town Hall lobby — there is no standing monument that approximates the prominence and scale of The Embrace.

Hank Willis Thomas and Imari Paris Jeffries
Hank Willis Thomas and Imari Paris Jeffries at Day 3 of the Embrace Ideas Festival
Kristen Daudelin

“The city is going through a renaissance of culture and new leadership, both civic and elected,” says King Boston Executive Director Imari Paris Jeffries. “This post-pandemic world has an opportunity for Boston to be the home of something else. And that could be culture, and that could be inclusion, and that could be justice.”

Reflecting on the Kings' legacy, sculpture artist Thomas said actions can have a power and impact beyond what we can imagine.

As he sees it, every living person is a monument to their ancestors.

“If we're actually really engaged with our existence, we recognize that a lot of people made a lot of choices and a lot of sacrifices for us to be here,” he said, adding that people have a tendency to take that history for granted. "If we think of each person as a temporary monument, I think we might actually begin to get to the essence of life.”