Honoring Boston's civil rights activists through community-based storytelling

The Embrace sculpture in Boston Common with the sun in the background casting shadows in the foreground.

The Embrace, a sculpture honoring Dr Martin Luther King Jr and his wife, Coretta Scott King, was unveiled on 13 January 2023 in Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States. Art Processors partnered with Embrace Boston, the advocacy organization that commissioned the artwork, to create an audio-visual progressive web app—The Embrace Digital Experience—for visitors to learn more about the sculpture, Dr and Mrs King, and the civil rights movement in Boston. 

At the heart of the Digital Experience is a three-part audio narrative told entirely through the voices of cultural, spiritual, and political leaders in Boston’s Black community. The web app also contains biographies of local civil rights leaders, the names of whom are etched into the 1965 Freedom Plaza surrounding the sculpture, and photographic essays on a range of themes connected to The Embrace and civil rights in Boston. 

In seeking to create experiences that leave a lasting positive impact on communities, we are both proud and privileged to be working with Embrace Boston to share their vision of a radically inclusive and equitable society.

Photos courtesy of MASS Design Group.

Embrace Boston – Episode 1
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The Embrace sculpture in Boston Common with the sun in the background casting shadows in the foreground.

The sculpture itself, by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, is a ring of intertwined arms based on a photograph of Dr and Mrs King embracing shortly after learning he’d received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Like the sculpture, The Embrace Digital Experience is designed to pay homage to the couple and their love, while also contextualizing the artwork. We wanted to help tell the story of why The Embrace exists, how it was made, and why it is located in Boston—but also allow it to be a conceptual anchoring point for visitors to explore the history of civil rights activism in the city, to celebrate the achievements of its BIPOC communities, and as a perpetual call to action.

A key challenge was how to create succinct and impactful narratives from the extraordinary wealth of information available to us. Many visitors to the sculpture will likely be aware of Dr King’s work and the major events in his life—what perspectives or details could we offer to keep listeners engaged? Moreover, how could we weave the threads of civil rights history into the present era, reminding audiences that the messages of activists from decades past are still pertinent today? 

These topics reflect the weight of trauma still carried by many people in Boston and beyond. But as Embrace Boston works towards the dismantling of structural inequities that still persist from the darker pages of history, they also recognize the joys that life can deliver through art, culture, and community. Love, as one of the organization’s core values, and as the most fundamental theme of The Embrace, is another message we wanted to bring to the Digital Experience.

The loading screen for the Embrace Boston Digital Experience.
The homepage for the Embrace Boston Digital Experience.
An audio story in the Embrace Boston Digital Experience.
The 'Our Heroes' screen in the Embrace Boston Digital Experience.

The creation of the Digital Experience was a deeply collaborative process. Guided by the values of Embrace Boston, we proposed three audio chapters that serve as a visitor’s guide to The Embrace while providing historical and contemporary context to the sculpture.

The first of these is the warming and occasionally light-hearted tale of how Martin and Coretta met while studying in Boston—a story unfamiliar even to many Bostonians, but a key element of Willis Thomas’ inspiration for The Embrace. The second audio narrative branches out to the civil rights movement in Boston between 1950 and 1975, championing the activists and leaders who persisted in the face of ongoing injustices during this period. The final segment is a celebration of Black joy as we learn about the people shaping the future of Boston’s artistic and cultural life.  

We scripted critical story points to cover in each audio chapter. Through their extensive reach, Embrace Boston connected us to key figures in Boston’s Black community—politicians, artists, historians, musicians, reverends, entrepreneurs, and many others—who generously shared their knowledge and experiences for us to choreograph into lively, flowing narratives for the Digital Experience. These stories are told entirely by the voices of Black Bostonians throughout the audio chapters.

As the project developed, our team and Embrace Boston also recognized its potential as a curated audio-visual library for Black history, activism, and culture in Boston. As such, the Digital Experience has the capacity for expansion through future contributions, whether they be old stories brought to light or new stories created by contemporary Bostonians. 

The three audio chapters are narrated by Naheem Garcia, who was born in Cuba but moved to Boston in 1968 at the age of one. As a child, Garcia lived through some of Boston’s most turbulent events in living memory such as the school desegregation busing crisis and subsequent unrest. He is now a theater educator and actor, with extensive experience on the stage, in television, and in prominent Hollywood films. Garcia’s voice is immediately warm and welcoming to the listener, introducing community trailblazers and describing events in Boston’s history with empathy and emotion.

A man and woman stand with their arms around each other in front of The Embrace sculpture.

The Embrace Digital Experience can be conveniently accessed from any mobile device by scanning a QR code located at the walkways leading to the sculpture. The experience is divided into three main sections based around the themes of “listen, look, learn.” 

  • Audio Stories: Containing the three audio chapters, chronologically ordered but can be listened to in any order as standalone narratives, as told entirely by Black Bostonians.
  • Our Heroes: Featuring images and biographies of the Bostonian civil rights heroes whose names appear in the plaza surrounding the sculpture. 
  • Photo Stories: A series of photographic essays on themes drawn from The Embrace, including work-in-progress images of its creation.

The narration invites visitors to explore the space in and around The Embrace, including the Parkman Bandstand from where Dr King spoke in April 1965 after leading 22,000 people in a march from the neighborhood of Roxbury to Boston Common. Transcripts of the audio chapters are accessible from within the experience for visitors who are unable or don’t wish to listen to the narration. 

With the capacity to add further material, the Digital Experience will be able to function as an evolving resource for anyone, no matter where they are located, to learn more about Dr and Mrs King and Boston’s history of civil rights activism.

The Embrace sculpture in Boston Common with a display stand for the Embrace Boston Digital Experience in the foreground.

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.