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The Embrace: A Controversial Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Boston

Beyond tribute…a testament to the power of love

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to witness a symbol of love and resilience towering in the heart of a bustling city?

Boston has recently been graced with a new piece of art that pays homage to two of the most prominent figures in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. The Embrace, a 20-foot tall bronze sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas, has recently taken its place among the public art of Boston, Massachusetts in December 2022 and has been stirring up emotions from both the public and critics alike.

King Boston Initiative chose a sculpture called The Embrace, which was created by artist Hank Willis Thomas.

In a quest to immortalize the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, the Boston Foundation and Embrace Boston, an organization committed to creating a memorial to the civil rights icon, launched a call for proposals in 2017, seeking a public artwork that would recognize and validate the great leader.

The call was met with an outpouring of creative submissions, with 126 proposals being put forth by a diverse array of artists from across the country. However, it was Hank Willis Thomas' design, The Embrace, that ultimately emerged as the winning proposal, selected from among the numerous submissions. This 20-foot tall bronze sculpture was created by the renowned Mass Design Group in Walla Walla, Washington, and was installed on the Boston Common.

The Embrace depicts four intertwined arms, symbolizing the loving embrace shared by the Kings after Martin received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The design of the sculpture is a reflection of their commitment to nonviolence and the importance of love in their activism. The intricate details, such as the buttons on Martin's sleeves and the bracelet on Coretta's wrist, bring the message of the sculpture to life.

The Embrace is situated in the 1965 Freedom Plaza, a circular plaza that honors 69 civil rights leaders in Boston who made a difference in the 1950s through the 1970s. The plaza is located within the Boston Common, a public park in downtown Boston, and sits between the Boston Common Visitor's Center and the Boston Massacre Monument. It was formally dedicated on January 13, 2023, with the presence of dignitaries and members of the King family, including the Kings' son, Martin Luther King III, and their grand daughter, Yolanda Renee King

Despite its significance, the sculpture has received largely negative responses from critics and the public. Journalists, social media users, and critics have all weighed in on the mounment, calling it 'ugly', 'pornographic', and 'aesthetically unpleasant'. Some have deemed the piece a "waste of money" and an "artistic and civic failure," while others have claimed that the work fails artistically and visually. Yet, despite the negative reactions, the piece has received some praise, with members of the King family expressing their admiration for the sculpture.

Hank Willis Thomas in his Brooklyn Navy Yard studio.Credit...Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

In response to the criticism, the artist, Thomas, has been defiant, refusing to make any changes to the piece. He has stated that the sculpture was selected by the people of Boston and that none of the thousands of people involved in designing and fabricating the piece saw it in a pornographic light. He views any viewing of the work as "perverse." Whether the public will come to appreciate The Embrace remains to be seen, but it is clear that the sculpture has created an active participation as the public debate over the meaning and significance of public art.

Despite this, The Embrace serves as a powerful reminder of the love and commitment that Martin and Coretta had for each other and their cause. It also serves as a call to action for all of us to continue their legacy and work towards a world that is more just and equitable.

The journey of this monument, from its conception to its unveiling on the Boston Common, is an attestation to the power of collaboration and communal support. From the call for proposals put out by the Boston Foundation and Embrace Boston, to the participation of thousands in its creation, the sculpture stands as a symbol of the collective spirit that drives change.

As we stand before The Embrace, we are challenged to reflect upon the Kings' message and carry it forward. We are invited to embrace their ideals and strive for a more fair and equitable society. The Embrace may be a bronze sculpture, but it is also a celebration of the transformative power of love. In the end, perhaps the greatest measure of sculptures's success is the way it stirs our hearts and inspires us to continue the work that Martin and Coretta began. It inspires us to embrace our common humanity.

The Embrace will forever stand as a beacon of hope, a symbol of love and a testament to the enduring impact of the Kings' work.

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