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New MLK statue in Boston is greeted with a mix of open arms, consternation and laughs

The Embrace, the new memorial sculpture in Boston made in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, was unveiled on Friday.
Lane Turner
Boston Globe via Getty Images
The Embrace, the new memorial sculpture in Boston made in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, was unveiled on Friday.

The city of Boston unveiled a new memorial sculpture in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on Friday. The reception for the 22-foot statue has been decidedly mixed — ranging from enthusiastic plaudits to consternation and outright jeers.

The monument, by artist Hank Willis Thomas, is called The Embrace; it is meant to honor the relationship between the Kings. It was specifically inspired by a 1964 photograph of the couple hugging, after King had been announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

When Willis Thomas' work was announced as a finalist in 2018, he emphasized that a physical embrace also offered a sense of spiritual and emotional protection. The finished piece is a 19-ton bronze work made up of over 600 pieces welded together. Below the statue, the plaza is decorated with diamond-shaped stones that evoke African-American quilting tradition.

This piece of public art, unveiled Friday, immediately garnered mixed reactions. In a long Twitter thread, Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah criticized the monument, saying that the artist "reduced" the Kings to "body parts," adding: "For such a large statue, dismembering MLK and Coretta Scott King is... a choice. A deliberate one." Attiah continued: "Boston's Embrace statue perfectly represents how White America loves to butcher MLK. Cherry-picking quotes about love and violence. While ignoring his radicalism, anti-capitalism, his fierce critiques of white moderates. MLK in his fullness-- is still too much for them."

Others took a slightly less intellectual exception to Willis Thomas' vision. In one of the more printable comments, Boston-based activist and writer Chip Goines wrote on Twitter: "I can't shake the feeling that this view of 'The Embrace' sculpture from this angle looks like two disembodied arms & hands hugging a butt. ...why do the MLK monuments have to be so bad?"

In a scathing online essay, Coretta Scott King's first cousin, Seneca Scott, wrote in part: "For my family, it's rather insulting. ...Ten million dollars were wasted to create a masturbatory metal homage to my legendary family members."

Nevertheless, Boston mayor Michelle Wu hailed the sculpture as an invitation to "open our eyes to the injustice of racism and bring more people into the movement for equity," the Boston Globe reported Saturday.

The monument sits on Boston Common as part of the 1965 Freedom Rally Memorial Plaza, a site which honors local and national civil rights leaders, as well as an Apr. 23, 1965, rally led by King. On that date, marchers walked from Roxbury, one of Boston's historically Black neighborhoods, to the Common downtown, which is the oldest public park in the United States.

Both Kings were very familiar with Boston; it was the city where they met and began dating. Beginning in 1951, Coretta Scott King studied at the New England Conservatory of Music with dreams of becoming an opera singer; the same year, the reverend began doctoral studies at nearby Boston University.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.