A new monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King was unveiled this week on the Boston Common. It’s called “The Embrace.” We don’t see their heads, just their arms around one another. The Kings met while they were students in Boston, so they had a connection to that city. The photo on which this sculpture is based came later, in 1964, just after King had received the Nobel Peace Prize. He is smiling, and so is Coretta Scott King. The nonviolent resistance to centuries-old racism was getting global recognition. They had a lot to celebrate.
Sculptor Hank Willis Thomas said, “When they met here [in Boston], they were people full of dreams, full of ambitions, full of hope, and they chose to actually commit those dreams to one another and to society, and that day [when King got the Nobel Peace Prize] was like proof that it was all worth it.” [Boston unveils "Embrace" sculpture of MLK and Coretta Scott King (nbcnews.com)
It was not so long ago that statues honoring Confederate leaders were removed from a number of our cities. Those statues, erected decades after the Civil War, served as a reminder of white supremacy ideas that continue to this day in our nation. So to have this sculpture honor not only the Kings but all People of Color and the ongoing struggle for civil rights is moving and certainly something to celebrate.
And. It is easier to put up monuments to our prophets than it is to live the truths that they lift up. You may recall that King was hated while he was alive. His prophetic message about love and inclusion for all people, including Black people, was beyond uncomfortable for many white people.
Jesus ran into the same exact issue. In his hometown synagogue, he reads the passage from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and then he tells everyone there that this is what he’s going to do. But he’s sent to all the people, not just those of Nazareth. The people try to throw him off a cliff. So his ministry starts off with a bang. And of course we know that ultimately he upset enough people that they strung him up on a cross in an effort to get rid of him for good. He held up a mirror to his society, and the people with privilege felt threatened by what they saw.
The problem with eliminating the holder of the mirror is that the mirror remains, and once we’ve seen it, we can’t unsee it….
Imagine that Jesus, in his prophetic wisdom, told us to love God and each other, to care for the poor, to heal the sick, to preach and teach everywhere, to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed, just as he did. Imagine we took that message to heart and just did it. Love all people, regardless of race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender identity or mental and physical abilities or educational background or financial status. Okay: check. Done.
Imagine that Dr. King, Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and all the other thousands of people working on the Civil Rights Movement held up a mirror to our society and made us see how violently racist and oppressive it is, and we said, “Oh my goodness, thank you for bringing this to our attention,” and we just fixed it. Okay: check. Done.
And our children of all colors attended school together, and nobody needed to call out the National Guard to escort six-year-old Ruby Bridges past all the white grown-ups outside the school foaming at the mouth with hatred. No parents pulled their children out of school rather than have their white child sit next to a Black child in class. No teachers refused to have Black children in their classes. No children called each other racist names on the playground.
Back around 2019, the very city where Martin and Coretta fell in love, Boston, analyzed financial wealth of its population based on race. The median net worth of white households in Boston was $247,500. The median net worth of Black households was $8. We don’t have to be told that racism is alive and well in the United States well after the Civil Rights Movement tried to abolish it. But hearing details like this about how it plays out can shake us awake in disbelief. Eight dollars. Not $80 or $800. Eight. Here is a tangible example of how racism continues to ripple through the generations. How can we still be so far from our goal?
Our prophets hold up the mirror and show us these uncomfortable truths. Jesus preaches release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and his friends and neighbors try to kill him. The people in power feel their privilege so threatened that they put him up on a cross. King preaches a nonviolent end to racism and protests against the Vietnam War. Many feel so threatened they send out the fire hoses and the attack dogs. Someone shoots him dead on the balcony of a hotel.
“I will send them prophets,” the Wisdom of God says in Luke, “but they will kill them and afterwards build monuments to them.”
We have a new monument to Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. It is a monument to love and embracing—between husband and wife, between Black and white, between all peoples. Building this new sculpture took 10 years and a lot of collaboration. And it was easy compared with holding up the prophetic mirror to the racism that continues to kill people in our society.
Our Social and Environmental Justice Book Group has read a number of books about antiracism. Robin di Angelo spoke to us, one white person to another, about how this is a lifelong learning curve. Ibram X. Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, and others have continued to show us that mirror of our society. And even with all the books we’ve read now, we are just beginning to learn how to see what is in that mirror. So we see the mirror that Martin Luther King holds up in his prophetic wisdom. We dare to look at how ugly racism is and how the whites among us are implicated by enjoying privileges that our Black siblings do not have.
The new sculpture, “The Embrace,” on the Boston Common, is not just a monument to a great prophet who is now safely dead and can no longer stand before us with an uncomfortable mirror. This sculpture is a testament to love and to what is possible. It can remind us of what we must continue to aspire to become. May this monument make us uncomfortable and also fill us with hope and resolve for the future and present that we can create.
Amore Harris Jeffries is executive director of Embrace Boston, the group that made this sculpture happen. The first time he saw it fully installed, he said, “I cried like a baby. I cried like a baby.” He said, “There’s about 7 million people that visit Boston Common every year. They might hear a story of patriots. They might hear a story of freedom, and they might stumble across this monument and hear the story of the Kings. This is about understanding Black people’s place in this historic city.”
Martin Luther King III said, the first time he saw the design for the sculpture, “I thought, this is a powerful image. Sometimes we’re afraid to embrace, but for Dad and Mom to show us what embracing is—to have a manifestation of what they consistently did—is that it really is about the manifestation of love. And Dad had, obviously, a love for his wife and family, but he had a love for humanity, and so did Mom.”
This monument reminds us of the struggle for racial justice, but also the love that is possible, the love to which we can continue to aspire.
Sculptor Thomas says that when people experience this sculpture, “I want them to take away the responsibility to carry on the legacy of the Kings, who were devoted to unconditional love, to community, to humanity, and to hope.”
All of us are invited to build a monument to nonviolent antiracism. I’m not talking about a sculpture in bronze or marble. The monument we must build will live within us and in our communities when we dedicate our lives to building a more just and equitable society. Let us bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed.
Let us close with a prayer by Richard Rohr, who says, “Together, we ask for the courage for each of us to approach the prophetic path, today and in the days to come.” Let us pray.
God of the Great Gaze,
We humans prefer satisfying un-truth to
The Truth that is usually unsatisfying.
Truth is always too big for us,
And we are so small and afraid.
So You send us prophets and Truth speakers
To open our eyes and ears to Your Big Picture.
Show us how to hear them, how to support them,
And how to interpret their wisdom.
Help us to trust that Your prophetic voice
May also be communicated through our words and actions.
May we practice a spirit of discernment
And a stance of humility,
So that Your Truth be spoken, not our own.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Prophet,
Whom we also killed and will always kill
In the name of our little truths.
Help us, for we desire to share in Your Great Gaze. Amen.
[“God of the Great Gaze,” prayer from Prophets Then, Prophets Now, conference, July 2006 Center for Action and Contemplation.]