Two cities, one dream: Monuments to honor MLK, social justice and connect two diverse communities

Two cities had a dream, and that dream is coming true.

A public art project – 16 years in the making – is finally underway.  The final piece of funding for the work came together just last week – Feb. 9 – days before the deadline.

The Unified Civic Monuments Project will honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while also recognizing the unique historic legacies of two southwest Michigan cities: St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. Each city will have its own monument site and they will be connected by a walking route.

Groundbreaking will be held on Juneteenth this summer.

“This project is a collaborative effort that will create two cultural landmarks along a unifying trail between two communities, while also honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contributions to the civil rights movement,” said Paula Holtz, who is managing director of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Regional Prosperity, one of the project’s funders. “We are pleased to support and provide resources for this project through our Public Spaces Community Places program.”

What’s happening:  A team of artists is at work fabricating clay sculptures to be cast in bronze that will grace sites in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph as part of the Unified Civic Monuments Project, which met its $50,000 crowdfunding campaign goal. The funding success was announced by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the African American History and Literature Gallery. 

Matching the crowdfunding money with funds from MEDC’s Public Spaces Community Places completes the $850,000 cost of the project; funding includes large pledges and donations from locally based Whirlpool Corporation, Corewell Health, and AEP.

"Fundraising continues. Every dollar raised now will be used for ongoing programming, curriculum development, special events, and monument site maintenance – as well as potential future monument enhancements," says Unified Civic Monuments Project voluntee Jennifer Jacobs.
Donation information can be found at

About the project: The project features a monument site in each city, 1.5 miles apart. Each site will feature a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as a second element representing that city’s history. The monuments will bookend a Unity Trail that crosses the St. Joseph and Paw Paw rivers by bridges, including a pedestrian footbridge. The Unity Trail encourages community members and visitors to walk together and engage with each other in meaningful ways while traversing rivers that once divided them.

In addition to the statues, the project will include landscaping with native plantings, engraving of the names of the twin cities, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, at the monument sites, installation of a wall behind the Dr. King statue at the Benton Harbor site and at the St. Joseph site, a walkway up to the statues with dates and information about national civil rights milestones, including a blank stone representing milestones yet to come.

What’s next:  Both cities have approved plans for their portions of the project, including design of the sculptures, says Jacobs. She says a team of artists, selected two years ago, has already begun work on the monuments themselves. Harold Woodridge and David Alan Clark, who met 40 years ago as students at Washington University in St. Louis, were selected to design and install the new monuments, each to feature a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as a second element representing that city’s history. 

“They are working on the clay models right now,” Jacobs says, “using human models to sculpt from.”

The back story: The Unified Civic Monuments Project is a public art initiative to commemorate social justice, to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to recognize the unique historical legacies of sister cities, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. The project is led by the founders of the African American History & Literature Gallery, in partnership with Krasl Art Center, Lake Michigan College and Berrien Community Foundation. It is supported by the BH/SJ Arts & Culture Social Justice Group, and the cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.

“UCMP is so excited at this hour in our race to pass the baton to MEDC’s Public Spaces, Community Places program. After three years of planning and fund-raising for this one-of-a-kind monument project in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, this matching grant will help bring our vision to fruition,” says Sharon Brown, co-director of the African American History & Literature Gallery. 

About the Michigan Economic Development Corporation: The Michigan Economic Development Corporation is the state’s marketing arm and lead advocate for business development, job awareness and community development with the focus on growing Michigan’s economy. 

About Public Spaces Community Places: Public Spaces Community Places is a collaborative effort of the MEDC, the Michigan Municipal League, and Patronicity, in which local residents can use crowdfunding to be part of the development of strategic projects in their communities and be backed with a matching grant from MEDC.  Communities, nonprofits and other business entities can apply at

“The Michigan Municipal League is a firm supporter of placemaking projects happening around our state,” says Dan Gilmartin, CEO and executive director of the League. “This project will enrich the lives of everyone who views it, and create a positive impact in the communities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. This is what placemaking is all about.”

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange and other Issue Media Group publications. 
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