"The Embrace" with Hank Willis Thomas

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Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Embrace Boston is a non-profit organization established by the Boston Foundation in 2017, working to inspire change and activate social justice values towards the realization of a radically equitable and inclusive Boston. At the end of 2017, Embrace Boston issued a call for a permanent monument in the Boston Common representing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King’s legacy and presence within the city, creating a cultural symbol of equity and justice for Boston’s residents and visitors. An Art Committee convened, and received 126 applications that were ultimately narrowed down to five finalists invited for design competition. MASS and artist Hank Willis Thomas partnered on a proposal, and on March 4, 2019, The Embrace was officially selected for the design of the memorial and plaza.

The sculpture design was inspired by photographs taken during the Civil Rights movement, in moments of people joining hands and locking arms, and of the Kings walking arm in arm at the frontlines of marches and protests. One image from that period, depicting Dr. King hugging Coretta following the announcement that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, was particularly striking to Thomas: “I saw in that moment, how much of his weight was literally on top of her. And I thought that was a really symbolic idea: That she was literally holding his weight.” Thomas’ deep commitment to the transformative power of love and partnership elevated one idea above the others: embrace. The memorial design declares that love is the ultimate weapon against injustice. In evoking the love shared between the Kings, their commitment to each other, and their ideals, the message behind The Embrace is overwhelmingly simple and accessible: it is about what we share, not what sets us apart.

Beneath the 20-foot-high, 25-foot-wide sculptural arms of Dr. King and Coretta Scott, passersby will be reminded of our shared human connection and the ideals of inclusion that the Kings defended in their united life of activism. By enveloping visitors in the act of embrace, the memorial shifts emphasis from a singular hero to collective emotion.

Inserted as a new node in the network of The Boston Common, America’s oldest public park, efforts were made to bring the sculpture and surrounding plaza into composition with the rest of the space. The Embrace marks the first new monument in the Boston Common in more than 30 years. MASS led research and analysis to understand the history of the Common and its layout, adjacencies, infrastructures, and use patterns over time. The memorial sits along a historic desire line, and responds to the State House, Black Heritage Trail, and Parkman Bandstand. It was sited to preserve robust existing trees and scaled to be below their canopy, with additional trees planted around the plaza. 

The 1965 Freedom Plaza grounds The Embrace, and was oriented and scaled to celebrate the sculpture while creating a space for collective experience. The 6,000 square-foot circular plaza features granite custom shaped pavers, benches, and wall elements fabricated by Quarra Stone Company. Made up of over 1,300 granite stone pieces in six different finishes, the diamond-shaped pavers evoke African American quilt making traditions. The pattern symbolizes unity and collectivism, echoing a famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. in his letter from Birmingham Jail in Birmingham, AL, in 1963: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The Plaza is framed by two circular bench walls that rise from the granite, nestling the space around The Embrace to foster intimacy. One wall features a quote from Coretta Scott King, which builds on the memorial’s focus on love as key to making the change we want to see. The Plaza also honors 64 of Boston’s civil rights leaders active between 1950-1970, creating an opportunity to tell the story of local leaders who joined the Kings in their fight for social rights, and marched during the 1965 Freedom Rally. The honorees are commemorated with a bronze plaque embedded within the plaza.

“Love is such a powerful force. It’s there for everyone to embrace—that kind of unconditional love for all humankind. That is the kind of love that impels people to go into the community and try to change conditions for others, to take risks for what they believe in.”

- Coretta Scott King

Together, The Embrace and The 1965 Freedom Plaza create a memorial which marks the first step in a transformative vision for the city of Boston. The city is answering the call asked by many across the country: how can we fill the voids left in America’s public spaces, once we have removed the memorials that divide us? How can we demand more memorials that unite us around our common humanity, love, and empathy?

Project Details

42.355, -71.0655

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Year: 2023

Status: Complete

Size: 6,000 sq.ft. plaza

Program: Design and development of a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King for the city of Boston.

Services: Architecture and Landscape Design

Embrace Boston

Hank Willis Thomas
Quarra Stone Company
Walla Walla Foundry
The Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture and the Boston Arts Commission
Boston Parks and Recreation Department
The Boston Foundation
Friends of the Public Garden
The King Family