Reflections from Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director, King Boston 

Last week, the Kendall Square Association caught up with Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director at King Boston to discuss their living memorial to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, King Boston’s mission, and how we all must take action to become the most inclusive city in America. 

KSA: Welcome! We’re so glad to connect with you today and learn more about what’s happening with King Boston and start thinking about how we can engage in the important work and dialogues happening around your mission.  

IPJ: I’m super excited to be here today and humbled to be invited in to have the opportunity to talk about King Boston and have a conversation about what I’m thinking, what we’re thinking, you know, what we’re all thinking about as we’re trying to survive day-to-day and think about what new normal looks like. 

KSA: Tell us a little bit about the Kings’ history in Boston and how you’re using this time of racial awakening to change our regional reputation of inequality. 

IPJ: One little known fact that I think people don’t know is that the Kings first met while they were college students here. To be honest, I kind of knew that doctor King came here for college, but I didn’t know much about Mrs. King’s college journey. Coretta was a student at New England Conservatory while Doctor King was at Boston University. The story goes that on their first date, here in Boston, he asked her to marry him. We all know he was pretty good with words, so I can only imagine what it was like on their first date when he asked this question. Boston is the fourth largest college town in the country, but they came to a place that is not the most welcoming region we imagine it to be. Can you imagine if we were? And if the Kings came here to go to college, fell in love, and decided to make Boston the epicenter of the civil rights movement? 

KSA: That would have been incredible. We’ve long had a pretty bad reputation for inequality – long before The Boston Globe’s 2018 Spotlight Series on Boston racism. 

IPJ: And yet, at this moment in time, when we’ve all been sitting in our homes working in front of our computers, trying to homeschool our kids and take care of our loved ones, we have an opportunity, 56 years later, to re-imagine a future where we can create this epicenter for civil rights and racial equity. Part of this moment in time is for us to dream bigger and create a new post-vaccine reality. King’s campaigns stretched beyond just civil rights activism. His later campaigns addressed crises with the environment, with health equities, anti-war messaging, poverty, and housing inequality. Issues that we are still working to confront today — issues that are all rooted in inequity.

IPJ: When Dr. King came back to Boston in 1965 in one of his final campaigns, he presented a speech at Boston Common and this line stuck out to me, “It would be irresponsible of me to deny the crippling poverty and injustice that exists in some sections of this community. The vision of the New Boston must extend into the heart of Roxbury. Boston must be a testing ground for the ideal of freedom.” Boston has always been a town that punches above its weight class when it comes to opportunities for higher education and industry.

KSA: What makes these landmarks so critical for King Boston’s work?

IPJ: In 1965, Dr. King marched the “Freedom Corridor,” which is 2.7 miles from Nubian Square to the Boston Common. It’s full of historic streets, businesses, non-profits, and community culture. King Boston will be represented in both of these “Centers.”. Boston Common is the financial center of Massachusetts and Nubian Square is the geographic center of Boston, and also Black New England. “Centering” is an important aspect of the work we are doing – thinking about what it will mean for Boston to live up to its “City on a Hill” name and be known for its welcoming and anti-racist ecosystem. 

KSA: What’s happening in Nubian Square? 

IPJ: King Boston is an organization that has expanded as a result of this moment in time, and this includes the creation of the new King Center for Economic Justice. This Center will serve as a mixed use, retail/coworking space – and will be a new space for experiencing learning and culture.

“Embrace Ideas” is the monument concept, at a time when we’re all keenly aware of memorials’ political nature.  Memorials made of stone and steel are no longer the appropriate way to honor great people. We’ve seen this throughout the last five years, especially in cities like Richmond, London, and even Boston. Last year, the North End’s Christopher Columbus statue’s head was taken off. The way we’re engaging the arts right now is for reconciliation, healing, and justice.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King following the announcement that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964.

KSA: Tell us about the monument. 

IPJ: The photo “The Embrace” was the inspiration for the memorial that was chosen. Hank Willis Thomas, a New York based, internationally acclaimed African American conceptual artist, along with MASS Design Group, was selected to create the image for this memorial. This photo captures the moment when Dr. King learned he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, and his first reaction was to embrace his wife. The sculpture that will be placed in Boston Common is meant to be touched and experienced. We want people that come to Boston to interact with this piece in America’s oldest park. It’s important that when we talk about what it means for us to be a welcoming city to have a symbol of racial equity in Boston’s center is important.

KSA: How has the project evolved to encompass the spirit of civil rights leaders in New England? 

IPJ: We started King Boston as a way to honor Dr. King, and the project has expanded tremendously. In addition to the Kings, there will be markers on the ground commemorating at least 35 leaders who were engaged in the civil rights movement in our region. We’re also thinking about what it means to engage technology to create an experience for folks visiting the memorial to understand the history of the region and the civil rights leaders who stood up for social justice in a plaza known as the 1965 Freedom Plaza.

KSA: What will these new tributes mean for the community? 

IPJ: The new memorial and King Center represent equity. It will make our region welcoming, and show that we are being active and internalizing what we are learning. We are using humanities, TED-style talks, music, food experiences, connections, book clubs, and more to interrogate what racism means. Current anti-racist discourse is not just about policy, it’s just not just data, it’s not just organizing – it’s also about how we, on an interpersonal level, have this conversation about racism, how we interrogate the ways in which we were socialized into racist behaviors, how do we embody what it means to be an anti-racist. This is what King Boston is about.  

IPJ: We think about what it means to interrogate racism from an economic justice perspective and the march Doctor King led in 1965 on the freedom corridor addressed four things: poverty and wealth issues in communities of color,  housing, racial inequality, and public education. These were all problematic back then and they are still problematic today. 56 years later we’re still talking about the wealth disparities and this federal report about the median net worth of black families being $8.00. We’re still talking about wealth and poverty disparities, about housing and de facto redlining through rent increases, racial equity in this region and we’re still talking about public education. King Boston would argue that public education is not just an issue in K-12, but really K-16. What does it mean for a region known for colleges and universities to be accessible to all the young people that grow up here?

KSA: What can we do differently now than we could 56 years ago?

IPJ: We have an opportunity to come together and redefine what it means for this region for Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville to emerge as a region that is representative of the values that we want it to be. We are starting some work at building coalitions with business leaders and nonprofits to plan this day when our new labor secretary Walsh returns with Vice President Harris to conduct the proverbial tradition of breaking a bottle of champagne over this three-story memorial and say NEW Boston is open. That these old notions where our region was the most unfriendly region have changed and we’ve gone from being the least friendly big city in the country to the most safe, welcoming, racial minded city in the nation. The true city on the hill we aspire to be.