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Hank Willis Thomas on His New Monument to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King

Zoë Hopkins
Jan 12, 2023 6:29PM

Hank Willis Thomas, installation view of The Embrace at Boston Common, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

On a winter afternoon in 1952, a love story began when Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King took a stroll in Boston Common. More than a decade after this fateful first date, Dr. King returned to the Common to address the over 22,000 people who marched with him from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. This January 13th, some 70 years after Martin and Coretta’s stroll, the park will be christened with a monument attesting to the love this couple shared with each other—and with the world itself.

Titled The Embrace, the 20-foot-tall sculpture was designed by artist Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with MASS Design Group, and stands in the new 1965 Freedom Rally Memorial Plaza, which is named as an homage to Dr. King’s aforementioned speech at the Common. The site is a historically loaded one: It neighbors the Crispus Attucks Monument, dedicated to the Black man who was the first American killed in the American Revolution during the Boston Massacre, as well as the memorial to Boston abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first Black regiments to fight in the Civil War. Boston Common, the oldest public park in the U.S., remains a locale where people gather for protests and rallies.

Hank Willis Thomas, installation view of The Embrace at Boston Common, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

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The story of Thomas’s sculpture began in 2017 when the artist submitted a proposal to a competition sponsored by the nonprofit King Boston (now called Embrace Boston), which led efforts to install a memorial honoring the Kings. While monuments to Dr. King are numerous—he is the fourth-most monumentalized figure in the U.S., according to Monument Lab—this is the first dedicated to the couple, a sentiment that animated Thomas. “It was really through the choices that they made together and the embracing of each other that we today are kind of living in the ripple effect of their love,” Thomas said during a studio visit in December 2022.

Like much of Thomas’s sculptural work, The Embrace sprang from a photograph. After extensive research into images of the Kings, Thomas landed on one of relative obscurity. In it, Martin and Coretta are pictured in a moment of tender celebration after the former was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. The two stand enfolded in one another, their facial expressions a mixture of joy, pride, and love.

Hank Willis Thomas, detail of The Embrace at Boston Common, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Thomas boils this moment down to its affective essence—the tangle of the couple’s embracing arms, a bold gesture towards recognizing that, at the foundation of the Kings’ politics, was a decentering of the individual and an affirmation of the all. While The Embrace honors the Kings specifically, the absence of their faces makes room for the broader ideas that their legacy holds. “I want to acknowledge them in the work but also wanted to make something that was universal,” Thomas said.

As such, The Embrace teeters between figuration and abstraction, between the two individuals it memorializes and the power of their collective vision. This ethos surfaces again in the pathways leading to the Freedom Rally Memorial Plaza, which are inscribed with names of people who participated in the Boston civil rights movement.

Hank Willis Thomas, installation view of The Embrace at Boston Common, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

In its very form, The Embrace suggests the possibility of a universal love, or what Dr. King might have called “worldwide fellowship”: It is quite literally all-embracing. Unlike most monuments, it does not assume authority over its viewers, but rather welcomes us into its fold. We can also inhabit it, living in its embrace. For Thomas, who described the sculpture as an “eternal message, an infinity loop,” The Embrace not only invites us to be inside it, but also to be moved by it, to participate in the values that it embodies.

“I feel like this piece is a call to action,” Thomas mused. “Love is a verb. And so when people walk into The Embrace, I want them to be called to action, perhaps to embrace one another.” While the work is a memorial to activists of the past, it is also very much a living vessel of interrelation—an active site for envisioning the future of loving mutuality that the Kings so resolutely committed themselves to.

Hank Willis Thomas, detail of The Embrace at Boston Common, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

As a monument to these possibilities of tender insurgency, The Embrace is powerful on its own terms. But its importance is thrown into sharp relief when read against the history of monuments in this country, where sculptures in celebration of violent people and ideas seem ubiquitous. “Most of the monuments all over the country are monuments to heroes of war or victims of war,” Thomas remarked. “There are very few peace monuments and there are even fewer love monuments.”

In a country where monuments are so often linked to iconographies of violence, and in a time when they remain a topic of contestation, The Embrace is not only a refreshing counterpoint. It is also a provocation towards refiguring what defines the power of the monument—a reparative offering that asks what might shift in our cultural norms when we create monuments to love.

Hank Willis Thomas, detail of The Embrace at Boston Common, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

During my interview with Thomas, he paused mid-sentence to share the last three pages from Dr. King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), published the year before his assassination. Thomas and I dwelled in particular on the opening lines of the last paragraph, in which King names love in the present as the force that will sustain us in the future: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.

The Embrace echoes King’s prophetic poiesis. It offers an ethic to live by today, and as it lives into the future, it will continue to tell of the urgency of love now, tomorrow, and in the eternal afterlife of that which the Kings—and all those whom they moved and were moved by—knew was possible.

Zoë Hopkins
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019