On MLK’s 90th birthday, the time is right for supporting King’s Boston legacy

Boston Foundation announces a $500,000 gift to King Boston as part of push to continue King's work

January 25, 2019

This piece originally appeared in the January 21, 2019 edition of the Boston Globe.

By Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO and Rev. Gregory G. Groover, Boston Foundation Board of Directors

Tommie Shelby at Arlington St Church
Harvard Professor Tommie Shelby leads a discussion of Martin' Luther King's economic justice policies at King Boston's January 15 teach-in 

Ninety years ago this month, Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta. His journey from childhood to civil rights icon, and his time in Boston, have been better documented by biographers and by his own words than anything we could possibly try to capture here. But more than a half-century after his death, one could plausibly argue that there is no better time for his work in the area of social and economic justice to be recognized than now, and no better place to do it than here in Boston.

King’s years here, as a doctoral student at Boston University, are unique because they were a time of listening, learning, and reflection that shaped his view of justice. As a pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church, his time in Boston helped refine his oratorical skills and shaped his life as a husband and father. In June 1953, he married Coretta Scott, herself a student at New England Conservatory. In a city renowned for education, he was a quintessential student, growing as both a scholar and a man.

The connection that the Kings had with the city didn’t fade. When King came back to Boston in 1965, he referred to the city as a place “which I call home.” He saw not just its evident issues with racism, inequality, and injustice, but also its potential to overcome those issues. “I come here not to condemn but to encourage. It would be dishonest to say Boston is Birmingham or Massachusetts is Mississippi,” King said, “But it would be irresponsible of me to deny the crippling poverty and injustice in some sections of this community.”

Over a half-century later, poverty, injustice and inequality remain among our most critical challenges. Research from our Boston Indicators team this past year captures a remarkable disparity. By its measure, low-income blacks have a better opportunity for economic growth in Boston than in any other city in America — yet their economic mobility falls short of that for low-income whites in almost every large city in the country.

Injustice and inequality aren’t just economic issues. They pervade education, employment, health care, and housing. They touch the youngest and oldest members of our community. They limit access, reduce opportunity, and drain resiliency. They are pervasive, multifaceted, longstanding challenges that defy easy solutions.

In the face of seemingly intractable problems, we need to model the Kings’ determination and underscore the power of words and works, then and now, to create change. Today, the Boston Foundation is formally announcing a $500,000 gift to King Boston to support its effort to establish a permanent tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common, the creation of a new King Center for Economic Justice in Roxbury to challenge economic disparities in the city, and an endowment for King-related programming in collaboration with the Twelfth Baptist Church, and more.

This community-spanning project requires a community-wide commitment, and to its credit King Boston has strived to make community engagement a key priority. King Boston hosted more than a dozen community meetings across the city, and has provided opportunities for public viewing and feedback on possible designs. Mayor Walsh and numerous city departments have stepped up as partners in the process, and without them the effort would not be able to happen. Generous donors have already given more than $5 million toward an estimated $12 million goal to create and support these long-term projects to celebrate the lives of the Kings, inspire learning and an understanding of how their legacy resonates in the city today, and provide tools and opportunities for us to take on the challenges they laid out so plainly that still face our city today.

Education, inspiration, and a platform for action. You could suggest that those three elements are what drew Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott to Boston in the 1950s. Creating an opportunity to recognize, celebrate, and carry on their visions are a worthy and fitting tribute to them, and one we hope all will support as a lasting and sustainable legacy of the Kings and their work.

Paul Grogan is the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation. The Rev. Dr. Gregory G. Groover is pastor of the Charles St. A.M.E. Church and a former chair of the Boston School Committee. He serves on the Boston Foundation board of directors.