“The Embrace” Statue Unveiled in Boston Gets Mixed Reactions on MLK Day

The statue is inspired by a 1964 photo of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott.
By Madison E. Goldberg
(Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A few days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a statue was unveiled in his honor in Boston, Massachusetts. The location of the memorial puzzled some, but as it turns out, Martin Luther King Jr. attended Boston University for his master’s degree, and his wife, who the statue is also dedicated to, attended the New England Conservatory. The statue, called “The Embrace”, was created by artist Hank Willis Thompson, and is based on a photograph taken of Coretta and Dr. King hugging after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

The King family was present for the dedication of the statue on January 13, which is located in the Boston Common, the oldest public park in the nation. Yolanda Renee King, the 14-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, spoke briefly at the event.

Today, the statue trends on Dr. King’s birthday, a national holiday. While some admire the statue’s intended message of enduring love amid the struggle for racial justice, others point out some marks the statue may have missed.

The first of these is the location of the statue–Boston has a history of racism and de facto segregation. This tends to be overlooked due to the city’s location in the northeast, and generally democratic leaning leaders over the course of the past few decades. 

The Boston Globe columnist Jeneè Osterheldt wrote that the statue was “a centering of Black love, and a monument that shows a gentleness America often denies Black people.” The statue is reportedly the largest monument dedicated to a civil rights leader in the United States.

Others felt that the statue’s design is what made the message get lost in translation. The statue is bronze, and thus leaves race an enigma visually. The Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah felt that the statue’s design, which only features the arms of the embrace, was insensitive to the long American history of violence against Black people. She detailed her thoughts about the statue’s shortcomings in a Twitter thread.

The sculpture also sparked discourse among artists and art critics on TikTok. Hank Willis Thomas’ hefty portfolio documenting the Black experience in America with a sharp attention to detail is what surprised people about the sculpture’s abstract nature.

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Others feel that the statue, which references Dr. King’s personal relationship with his wife is in poor taste. The FBI attempted to destroy Dr. King’s reputation by wiretapping him, and they discovered that he had many extramarital affairs. The documents were sealed until 2019.

Opinions on Dr. King have varied since its revelation–some feel that his personal life should be separated from his important contributions to the Black community in America. Others feel that this taints his legacy. School children in Boston are now being shown a documentary about Dr. King and Coretta Scott, and some take this as a whitewashed form of history.

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Despite a wide variety of opinions on American history’s interpretation of Dr. King, and “the Embrace,” one thing is made clear–historical figures, regardless of their achievements for the greater good, are all flawed and human.