Just a few years ago, conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas had no idea his role in commemorating the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. But when his application was chosen from among 125 artists and architects to design a new memorial in Boston dedicated to civil rights icons, he was shocked.
“When I made the proposal, I didn’t even think we had a real chance,” Thomas, 46, told NBC News. “By the time it was approved, I think I was on autopilot like, OK — how can I not get in the way of history? It’s really been my mission for the last several years.”
With the goal of inspiring visitors and honoring the legacy of royalty, Thomas’ work will be unveiled Friday at Boston Common, America’s oldest city park, in downtown Boston. Titled “The Embrace,” the 20-by-26-foot bronze structure depicts the arms, shoulders, and hands of the monarchs embracing after Martin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, a moment that was immortalized in a famous photograph.
The ceremony is scheduled to be attended by Kings’ son, Martin Luther King III – also a civil rights activist – and 14-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renee King, who will give a speech about racial equality at the Lincoln Memorial in 2020.
Thomas said the five-year memorial represents the love, heart, and soul of the couple, while also highlighting the power of the iconic moment.
“In that photo, you can see his weight on her shoulders as they embrace,” he said. “And she realized that this was really a metaphor for his legacy — that she had carried his legacy on her shoulders for several decades after his assassination.”
King devoted his life to the civil rights movement, the struggle for racial equality and economic justice. After his assassination in 1968, Coretta continued his legacy by promoting peace and equality along with championing marginalized communities, including gay people, women, children, and the poor. She even led more than 40,000 people as part of a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, protesting for a better living wage shortly after her husband’s death. Despite being King’s wife, Coretta’s gender, according to Thomas, marginalized her role in the civil rights movement.
“I think the way she played her role opened doors for people all over the world of every gender,” said Thomas. “And I feel like we’re living in this kind of cascading effect, of her creativity and her diligence and her strength and her courage and her daring today.”
The origin of the statue is larger than life
Thomas’ work has appeared in over a dozen exhibitions, and apart from “The Embrace” he has 13 public sculptures and other pieces of art. Among them are the “Unity” statue in downtown Brooklyn, which depicts an athlete’s arm pointing to the sky, and “Lift” in Montgomery, Alabama, reflecting South African miners with arms raised and undergoing a humiliating body 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 can be a part of continuing their story and honoring them,” he said. . “This is beautiful, so cool.”
The process of creating the statue was not easy. Once Thomas’ proposal for the project was accepted, the statue required several levels of approval from multiple organizations, including the Boston Art Commission and the Boston Landmarks Commission. Once the Boston Arts Council voted to approve the statue’s design in March 2021, the city excavated the ground where the statue was set, excavating it to ensure no human bones or ancient artifacts were misplaced.
In shaping the massive bronze sculpture, Thomas also said he worked with Walla Walla Foundry, a contemporary art maker based in Washington state, who made a 3D-printed model of the sculpture and cast it in bronze. Once the statue was completed last spring, the company disassembled it into six pieces and shipped it to Boston.
MLK Connection in Boston
The statue is located at the same spot where in 1965 King led 20,000 people in the Northeast’s first march of the civil rights era to protest school segregation.
King was familiar with Boston and had a Ph.D. He received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Boston University in 1955. He lived in an apartment building on Massachusetts Avenue, which was designated historically to acknowledge his residence. Boston is 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,” said Thomas, “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 raise awareness.”
In recent years, several civil rights monuments and statues have been vandalized, including a statue of George Floyd 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 that while vandalism happens all the time to public art, he didn’t consider the possibility that someone could damage this statue. “So maybe I’m being naive,” he said, “but I kind of hope that his spirit, which is so universal, is something that will keep people from wanting to do her harm.”
Taking in the statue, he said, is meant to be interactive, as visitors can walk inside it and “be in the center of their laps.” He added that viewers can also look up and see the sky as “heaven will look down on them”, which he calls a “really powerful” and “sacred” experience. He also hopes that visitors will feel the same spirit of love and unity that the Kings embodied as they celebrated MLK.
He said, “If you connect with someone else, share your love and do something that you think creates opportunity for those who don’t have the same people you have.”