Boston Monument to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Divides Critics

Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group’s tribute is drawing mixed reviews—including comparisons to a penis—despite its intention to convey a powerful message of communal strength.

“The Embrace” (2023) by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group at Boston Common. Image courtesy of the artist

On a wintry afternoon in 1952, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King strolled in the Boston Common on their fateful first date. Little did the lovebirds know they would return to the Common more than a decade later to lead one of New England’s first civil rights marches, in which tens of thousands of people chanted freedom songs en route from the Roxbury, a predominantly Black neighborhood. This past Friday, more than 70 years after that initial stroll, the city unveiled a 22-foot-tall sculpture at the park honoring the couple’s legacy.

The monument is designed by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group, who were chosen by the city and nonprofit organization Embrace Boston from a pool of 126 entries. (The creative team previously collaborated on a traveling memorial to mass shootings.) Unlike most statues that present their subjects as a singular hero, The Embrace instead pays tribute to collective action by replicating the hug shared by the couple after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. More than 600 bronze pieces were welded together in Washington by the Walla Walla Foundry and transported to Boston Common as the centerpiece of a newly unveiled plaza commemorating civil rights activists, whose diamond-shaped stone pavers mimic patterns used in African American quilting traditions.

(FROM LEFT) “The Embrace” (2023) by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group at Boston Common; image courtesy of the artist. Dr. King hugging his wife, Coretta, during a news conference after the announcement he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964; image courtesy of Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

While it may at first resemble the scores of humdrum “plop art” sculptures looming over public plazas, The Embrace carries a resonant message of peace and fortitude. When the proposal was named a finalist, in 2018, Willis Thomas noted how a physical embrace offers a sense of emotional protection. The gesture evokes love and support—qualities seldom associated with towering statues of historic men, even King’s own memorial in Washington, D.C.—and stands as an antidote to statues dedicated to war. “There are very few peace monuments,” Willis Thomas told Artsy, “and there are even fewer love monuments.”

Reactions to the sculpture, however, have been less than kind. In a lengthy Twitter takedown, Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah scorned the artists for “dismembering” the Kings and “reducing” them to body parts while “ignoring his radicalism.” Others less tactfully likened the work to a “turd” or “phallus.” Perhaps the most biting critique came from Seneca Scott, a cousin of Scott King, who savaged the sculpture in a recent op-ed for Compact. In his eyes, the “masturbatory metal homage” more closely resembles “a pair of hands hugging a beefy penis” than a moment of intimacy. He also argued the $10 million sculpture affords few benefits to struggling Black families.

Detail view of “The Embrace” (2023) by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group at Boston Common. Image courtesy of the artist.

Willis Thomas seems unfazed by the backlash. In an interview, he reiterated his goal of capturing “the feeling of love” that dominated the Kings’ relationship. He also pointed out that none of the thousands of people who worked on The Embrace flagged it as perverse, likening the critical onslaught to that experienced by other monuments like Surface cover star Maya Lin’s once-decried, now-beloved Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“There are so many monuments that are memorials, but this is intended to really celebrate not only the Kings, but also their legacy and how their legacy plays out in our lives,” Willis Thomas said in a statement. “I really wanted to make the work a call to action. A reminder that each of us has in us the capacity to be either of those two people or actually something inspired by and more influential. Through embracing another person, our opportunities grow.”

Martin Luther King III, the couple’s eldest son, echoed that sentiment, expressing thanks that a statue can represent his parent’s love story. “[Willis Thomas] did a great job,” he told CNN. “In this time, day, and age, when there’s so much division, we need symbols that talk about bringing us together.”

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