Within Boston Common there are numerous monuments and sculptures. Most were built decades or even centuries ago, but there is one sculpture that was installed in 2022 and dedicated to one of the most iconic and influential figures of the 20th century: Martin Luther King Jr.
The Embrace was created by Hank Willis Thomas and depicts four intertwined arms, representing King and his wife Coretta Scott King, who shared a hug after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The Kings first met in Boston in 1952, while Martin was getting his Ph.D. in theology at Boston University and Coretta was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music.
King returned to Boston several times during the 1960s to give speeches about equality, unity, and perseverance. He spoke at the Ford Hall Forum in March 1963, several weeks before he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, and two years later after his march from Selma to Montgomery where he addressed the Massachusetts State Legislature and led the first civil rights march in the Northeast from Roxbury to Boston Common.
In 2017, the Boston Foundation put out a call for proposals for a public artwork to honor King. Artist Hank Willis Thomas’ design was chosen out of 126 submissions. The Embrace was installed on Boston Common in December 2022 and formally dedicated a month later on January 13, 2023, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Although dedicated to the love and leadership of Martin Luther King and his wife, the work was not without controversy. Some pointed out the sculpture looked inappropriate or suggestive when viewed from certain angles and the disembodied arms felt disconcerting or disrespectful. Regardless, Thomas defended his work stating art is an abstraction and the arms themselves can symbolize the love and compassion between any two people and not just the Kings.
Whether it’s admired or admonished, the sculpture represents a significant moment in the history of Boston Common and the city itself. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired countless millions of people with his messages of nonviolence, peace, compassion, truth, justice, and dignity. The Embrace commemorates his legacy for many generations to come.