Just before leaving Boston to become US labor secretary, then-Boston mayor Marty Walsh paused to extol the importance of “The Embrace.”
The memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King will mark the city’s progress “in addressing inequity” while “reminding us of the work that still needs to be done,” Walsh said in March.
“The Embrace,” destined for Boston Common, will indeed be a powerful symbol — a 22-foot-high, bronze figure of intertwined arms.
But a symbol is not a plan of action. King Boston, a nonprofit organization that is the prime mover behind the memorial, has a second project in the works that could help remedy Boston’s inequity. Slower off the mark but gaining traction is a proposed center to serve as a catalyst for racial and economic justice.
The center will be located in Nubian Square in Roxbury, the commercial hub of the city’s Black community. A year ago, the city rebranded Dudley Square to link its potential rebirth with the Nubian civilization that flourished in northern Africa more than 3,500 years ago, as well as honor the gift store A Nubian Notion, which closed in 2016.
Like “The Embrace,” the name Nubian Square has symbolic value. Yet more is required to turn the square into an engine of economic progress for the city’s Black community.
Fueled by heightened sensitivity to racial injustice and the inequity glaringly exposed by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, money has been flowing into the coffers of King Boston. Thanks to contributions from foundations, corporations, and the founding sponsor, software entrepreneur Paul English, King Boston has raised millions beyond the $9 million cost of the sculpture. Just last week, the Bank of America ponied up a robust $1 million.
The proposed center aims to build a $6 million endowment to buttress the center’s operations and enlarge its purpose. Among the proposed features: a museum, an events space, a small-business incubator, and a research facility.
The King Center’s theme of economic justice fittingly reprises the mission to which King devoted the last year of his life. He called for an Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged. A centerpiece of that campaign was his quest for quality education and employment opportunity to lift Americans out of poverty.
A complementary plan to relocate the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology to Nubian Square offers Boston a rare opportunity to produce a critical mass in the heart of Roxbury and energize the same cause.
Originally funded by a trust established by Benjamin Franklin, the school has struggled financially. The institute has sold the four-story building in the South End that has been its home since the school was founded in 1908 and has bought the old Harrison Supply Company building on Harrison Avenue at Nubian Square.
The school serves as an educational springboard for young, mostly minority students. It enrolls up to 600 students a year. Students, most of whom study for a two-year associate degree, learn practical skills, such as automotive electronics and computer technology. The median salary for alumni in full-time jobs a year after graduation is $42,000.
The institute will invest the proceeds (a sum not publicly disclosed) from the sale of its South End building to convert the Harrison Supply property into a state-of-the-art school. Still, the institute’s paltry $4 million endowment will hobble its potential for modernization and expansion.
That’s where the King Center could enter the picture. As they design their architectural plans for Nubian Square, King Boston and the Franklin Institute should consider how they can partner to advance racial and economic justice.
They might, for example, situate part or all of their facilities on a shared mini campus. King Boston could embed its business incubator at the institute as a technical wellspring for Black entrepreneurship.
King Boston could solicit funds from its supporters specifically to fund part of the institute’s Roxbury construction in return for naming rights — say, an MLK-dubbed building within the institute’s complex.
An infusion of outside money spawned the school’s existence in the first place. In 1909, Andrew Carnegie gifted $410,000 to match the funds then available from the Franklin Institute trust in order to construct the original South End building. Carnegie conditioned his grant on the city’s donating land for the school. The city yielded to his desires.
That model should guide the city of Boston today. The city should work with the King Center and the Franklin Institute to develop a bold plan to elevate Nubian Square as a beacon for economic justice. That’s how Boston can best memorialize King.
That kind of project would comport with King’s views, according to Andrew Young, a top aide to the civil rights leader and a former Atlanta mayor. As the debate over Confederate monuments gained steam four years ago, Young reframed the issue. He said that King’s mission was “not concerned with the symbols” but “with the substance” as he struggled to redeem “the soul of America from the triple evils of race, poverty, and war.”
In the last year of his life, as he dedicated himself heart and soul to seeking relief for poor Americans, King often quoted these words from the Old Testament’s Book of Amos: “Let justice roll down life waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Joseph Rosenbloom is author of “Redemption: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Last 31 Hours.”