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Finding the Meaning of Free at Last

King sculpture a graceful witness to BU life


On a clear August day 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Addressing a crowd that stretched past the Washington Monument, he spoke about the injustice endured for centuries by African Americans and the importance of not seeking “to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

King (GRS’55, Hon.’59) drew for his speech from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and his own rich pool of experiences, but the speech is best known for its famous refrain, borrowed from a Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

In advance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, BU Today asked faculty, staff, and students to talk about what the iconic speech means to them (see the videos above).

King’s famous speech has inspired countless works of art, among them the Free at Last sculpture by Chilean Sergio Castillo that stands at the heart of Marsh Plaza. From its granite base, the sculpture’s 50 doves, forged from Corten steel, rise in unison, symbolizing peace in each of the 50 states. From afar, the flock merges to form the outline of a single dove arching toward the sky.

Castillo came to BU in 1975, invited by the late President John Silber (Hon.’95) to teach at the College of Fine Arts while working on the sculpture. “For me, the issue of human rights is very essential in the world,” Castillo once said. “It is a human position that appears in many ways in all my work.” Two other Castillo sculptures grace the BU campus: Explosion, in front of the Metcalf Center for Science and Engineering, and Earth Orbit, in the School of Management lobby.

In 2001, the University presented the four original panels from the base of the Free at Last sculpture, engraved with King’s words, to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., where King earned a bachelor’s degree. The college installed the panels in its Martin Luther King, Jr., International Chapel.

The plaza surrounding Castillo’s work has come to be the place the University community gathers to mourn those lost. “Somehow we dimly recognize that it’s very helpful,” says Reverend Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, “especially in times of loss, grief, and sorrow, that we’re not the first people to come to these tragic moments.”

Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), dean of students, often goes to Marsh Plaza just to hang out by Free at Last to “see the world go by.” It’s a natural spot, he says, for University gatherings, because “you go there with a seriousness of purpose and a bit of respect as well. It’s that place that really matters for us. And it’s because we had the good sense to say, ‘This is about King.’”

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

2 Comments on Finding the Meaning of Free at Last

  • Alice Sloan on 01.17.2013 at 10:50 am

    Much of Martin’s life occurred before I was born as did the speech’s that he is known for. He means the world to me, and I love that he also graduated from Boston University. He is an inspiration!

  • John Pozzi on 03.21.2018 at 6:28 pm

    GRB – Free at Last

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