‘The Embrace’ monument memorializes Boston’s civil rights history, provides immersive experience


“The Embrace” is a complex monument meant to meaningfully commemorate Boston Black history during the civil rights movement. Photo credit: “The Embrace” (c) Hank Willis Thomas, in collaboration with MASS Design Group, King Boston and the City of Boston. Rendering Courtesy of MASS Design Group.

Katie Mogg, news staff

Boston has a long standing and intricate civil rights history and Hank Willis Thomas, a New York-based artist and photographer, is working alongside local architects and organizations to immortalize one part of it. They are creating a monument titled “The Embrace” to honor Martin Luther King Jr. 

The 22-foot high sculpture sitting on a circular, granite plaza is slated to be placed in Boston Common Jan. 16, 2023. Based on an image of civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr., or MLK, and his wife Coretta Scott King, “The Embrace” depicts the loving connection shared between the couple after MLK was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The monument aims to memorialize the civil rights work of MLK and Coretta Scott King while highlighting other prominent figures of Boston’s Black history. 

“I’ve seen racial inequities in my city and it’s actually unfortunate that that’s what my city is known for,” said Sam Giarratani, a Boston native and public art manager who works closely with Thomas at the Songha & Company art studio in Brooklyn, New York. “So this project was really thought about to help address those conversations … [The monument] shouldn’t be a stopping point. It should be the genesis for change.”

The process to assemble and install “The Embrace” is finally underway, and the vision of a monument emulating Boston’s civil rights movement was years in the making. In 2019, King Boston, a branch of The Boston Foundation dedicated to honoring the legacy of MLK and Coretta Scott King, selected Thomas’ proposal of “The Embrace” after sorting through hundreds of monument designs submitted to their competition. Thomas could not be reached by The News for an interview. 

Jonathan Evans, principal architect at MASS Design Group, a local firm collaborating with Thomas and King Boston to bring “The Embrace” to life, said the monument honors Black history in more ways than one. Not only will “The Embrace” immortalize the advocacy work of Corretta Scott King and MLK, but the plaza will honor 65 figures who contributed to the civil rights movement while shining light on unique aspects of African American culture.

“Looking at how we patterned the stone … the plaza feels like it’s a quilt, which evokes certain connections to African American quilt-making and folklore around the Underground Railroad,” Evans said. “There’s other layers of the story that we’re trying to tell here with the design.”

Evans explained that the monument is meant to provide an immersive experience. Visitors can walk around and through the large, embracing arms, allowing them to feel particularly connected to the work and the values it represents. He hopes the monument’s inviting design will inspire visitors to actively fight against racism in Boston.

“How do we actually try to inspire people to take action, inspire people to care and have a little bit of empathy and a little bit of agency to do something? That was a lot of the underpinnings of the project.” Evans said. “[We want to] leave it to the user to think through what [the monument] means to them, but I think the hope is that it does make you feel something.”

“The Embrace” is just one step King Boston is taking to increase recognition of the city’s Black history. Joel Jaquez, the organization’s associate director of partnerships, explained that Boston, a city recognized for its rich history, fails to properly acknowledge its Black past. To combat this, Jaquez said King Boston hopes to create a museum focused on Boston’s Black history by the end of the decade. 

While MLK is plastered across U.S. history textbooks, “The Embrace” helps shine a light on Coretta Scott King, who is often less recognized for her work as an activist compared to her status as MLK’s wife. Jaquez said it is important to highlight the role women have played in the civil rights movement. 

“When we were in the process of selecting 65 names … we want to make sure that it’s not just 65 names of 65 men,” Jaquez said. “Coretta was an instrumental figure in MLK’s life as she continued his legacy for many decades … A lot of the work that’s happening [in] the civil rights space, it’s everyone contributing.”

Mirroring Jaquez’s sentiment, Giarratani underscored the importance of giving proper recognition to Coretta Scott King in her own right. Giarratani explained that King Boston asked artists to submit monument proposals centering around the idea of “collaboration, partnership and love” between MLK and Coretta Scott King, uniquely honoring Boston’s civil rights history. 

“[King Boston’s prompt] set it apart from other memorials dedicated to Dr. King and his legacy because it incorporated Coretta who was instrumental in the civil rights movement as well,” Giarratani said. “And she doesn’t really get a lot of recognition for that.”

Above all, those involved in the design, creation and installment of “The Embrace” want it to be more than just an instance of performative activism. They want the monument to be a true representation of Boston’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist city.

“I really don’t want this to be one of those things that Boston checks off their list like, ‘Oh, we have a monument in the middle of the city, so we must not be racist.’” Giarratani said. “It should be galvanizing this conversation.”

While Jaquez said he hopes the monument will be something that inspires visitors to be activists in their own community, Evans said he hopes the monument tells a complex, multi-layered story of Boston’s history. “The Embrace” is not only about MLK and Coretta Scott King; it incorporates meaningful details of African American traditions while honoring the fortitude of dozens of activists during Boston’s civil rights movement.

“[The Embrace] is about bringing our story to the front door of the city in Boston Common,” Evans said.