Just a few years ago, the conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas had no idea he would be instrumental in commemorating the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. But when his application was selected out of 125 artists and architects to design a new monument in Boston dedicated to the civil rights icons, he was shocked.
“When I submitted the proposal, I didn’t even think that we really had a chance,” Thomas, 46, told NBC News. “By the time it was approved, I guess I’ve just been on autopilot like, OK — how do I just not get in the way of history? It really has been my mission over the past several years.”
Aiming to both inspire visitors and honor the Kings’ legacy, Thomas’ work will be revealed Friday at Boston Common, America’s oldest city park, in downtown Boston. The bronze structure, which is 20 feet long and 26 feet wide and titled “The Embrace,” depicts the arms, shoulders and hands of the Kings hugging after Martin received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the moment immortalized in a famous photo.
Those scheduled to attend the ceremony include the Kings’ son, Martin Luther King III — also a civil rights activist — and his 14-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renee King, who gave a speech on racial equality at the Lincoln Memorial in 2020.
Five years in the making, the monument represents the love, heart and spirit of the couple, Thomas said, while also highlighting the power of an iconic moment.
“In that picture, you can see the weight of him on her shoulders as they embrace,” he said. “And I realized that this was really a metaphor for his legacy — that she carried his legacy on her shoulders for several decades after he was assassinated.”
King dedicated his life to the civil rights movement, fighting for racial equality and economic justice. After his assassination in 1968, Coretta continued his legacy by promoting peace and equality along with advocating for marginalized communities, including LGBTQ people, women, children and the poor. She even led more than 40,000 people as part of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, in a protest for better living wages shortly after her husband’s death. And despite being King’s wife, Coretta’s gender, Thomas said, marginalized her role in the civil rights movement.
“I believe that the way in which she performed her role opened doors for people all over the world of every gender,” Thomas said. “And I feel like we’re living in that, in kind of, the ripple effects, of her creativity, of her diligence, of her strength, her courage and her daringness today.”
Origin of a larger-than-life sculpture
Thomas’ work has appeared in over a dozen exhibitions, and aside from “The Embrace” he has 13 other public sculptures and artistic pieces. Among them is the “Unity” sculpture in downtown Brooklyn, which portrays an arm of an athlete pointing toward the sky, and “Raise Up” in Montgomery, Alabama, reflecting South African miners with lifted arms and undergoing a humiliating physical examination. Thomas said that this particular project is special because the Kings are “two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, and that in the 21st century, I’m able to be a part of continuing their story and honor them,” he said. “That’s pretty, pretty awesome.”
The process for creating the sculpture was not easy. Once Thomas’ proposal for the project was accepted, the sculpture required several levels of approval from multiple organizations, including the Boston Art Commission and Boston Landmarks Commission. Once the Boston Arts Council voted to approve the sculpture’s design in March 2021, the city excavated the land where the sculpture is placed, digging into it to ensure human bones or ancient artifacts were not misplaced.
In forming the massive bronze sculpture, Thomas also said he worked with the Walla Walla Foundry, a contemporary art fabricator based in Washington state, which rendered a 3D-printed model of the sculpture and molded it with bronze. Once the sculpture was complete last spring, the company disassembled it into six pieces and shipped it to Boston.
MLK’s Boston connection
The sculpture sits in the same spot where in 1965 King led 20,000 people in the northeast’s first march of the civil rights era to protest segregation in schools.
King was familiar with Boston, earning his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University in 1955. He lived in an apartment building on Massachusetts Avenue, which is now historically marked to acknowledge his dwelling. Boston is also where King met his future wife, then a music education student at the New England Conservatory of Music.
“The idea was that the Kings met in Boston,” Thomas said “And a lot of people don’t understand the legacy of civil rights in Boston and that this was a great opportunity to celebrate that and bring awareness.”
In recent years, several civil rights monuments and statues have been vandalized, including a George Floyd statue in New York City last October and a memorial dedicated to Emmett Till in Mississippi, which was replaced with a bulletproof version in 2019 after being repeatedly vandalized for years. Thomas said while vandalism happens all the time to public art, he has not thought about someone possibly damaging this sculpture. “So maybe I’m being naive, but I kind of hope that the spirit of it, which is pretty much universal, is something that will keep people from wanting to harm it,” he said.
Taking in the sculpture, he said, is meant to be interactive, as visitors can walk inside it and “be in the heart of their embrace,” he said. Viewers can also look up and see the sky where the “heavens will be looking down on them,” he added, which he calls “a really powerful” and “holy” experience. He also hopes visitors feel the very same spirit of love and unity that the Kings embodied as they celebrate MLK Day.
“If you reach out to another person, share your love and actually do something that you believe creates opportunity for those who don’t have the same ones that you do,” he said.