ATLANTA — Five years ago, as they helped break ground on what would become the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington on a cold November day, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Ambassador Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse Jackson suddenly broke down in tears.
With Lewis leaning on his shovel, and Jackson and Young leaning on each other, they wept for how far they had come and for what they had lost.
They mused together over their last staff meeting before they went to Memphis in April 1968 — a journey that would end in King’s assassination. The memory dredged up feelings no one else could fully share.
“We just looked at each other,” Jackson said. “It was a different moment for us.”
This weekend, the trio, along with the Rev. Joseph Lowery and many other lesser known soldiers who worked alongside King in the struggle for justice and equality for black Americans plan to come together again, to dedicate the monument built in his honor. In the more than four decades since the death of the civil rights icon, Jackson, Lewis, Lowery and Young have remained tied to King’s legacy — and to each other.
In friendships forged during the civil rights struggle, their common link was a commitment to the cause and to King. They all admit that King was the reason they became friends, and that they drifted apart after his death. While the four remain friends, they come together now more for funerals than festivities.
But the dedication of the King Memorial on the National Mall, scheduled Sunday, will be a time of reflection, fellowship and celebration. It is yet another reminder to them all that they are brothers, bound by history.
“All of us had been to jail, all of us had lived under the threat of violence,” said Jackson. “We all had that acute sense of social justice. None of us had life insurance, or a retirement plan. But we had each other. And we still do.”
Of the four, Lowery knew King the longest. The two worked together during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and later co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Lewis met King three years later, while a college student, and worked with King through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Young joined SCLC in 1960, and Jackson came aboard five years later.
Despite whatever else they may have had in common, it was King who united them.
“He was the glue that held us together,” said Lewis. “The movement, it was dominated by religious leaders and ministers … a lot of those people had egos. It was only someone like a Martin Luther King Jr. who could keep us together.”
Jackson likened the relationship to bond among football players: Strangers from different towns coming together, wearing the same uniform, winning and losing as a unit.
“You become together what you never were apart,” he said. “I have such a great appreciation for those guys and I’m so grateful we made the choices we made. We care deeply for each other. We’ve been through a unique experience.”
After King’s assassination in April 1968, the glue was gone, and the men were scattered to the four winds.
“To be honest, we’re not that close,” Young, 79, said. “We were held close together by him. But as soon as he passed, we each went our own way. I thought that was going to kill the movement, but it actually diversified it. We all did something, in our own way. And we’ve all been supportive of each other.”
Lowery remained at the SCLC, where he served under the late Rev. Ralph David Abernathy before he became Abernathy’s successor. Lowery went on to become the SCLC’s longest-serving president, at the helm longer than King and Abernathy combined.
A portrait of Lowery and Obama at Lowery’s home bears the words: “I was kept alive to be a witness.” Lowery, who turns 90 in October, was not at the groundbreaking and will see the monument for the first time this week.
Jackson left SCLC and started his own group, Operation PUSH — which later became the Rainbow PUSH Coalition — dedicated to helping the poor and minorities. He also jumped into politics, twice seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s.
Lewis and Young also followed political paths. Young served as a U.S. congressman before becoming ambassador to the United Nations and two-time mayor of Atlanta. Lewis too found his way to Congress, where he has served since 1986 and has been a vocal advocate for human rights.
Each has honored King’s legacy in his own way.
“They had a right to choose their own paths,” said Lowery. “We went our separate ways and remained friends with separate responsibilities and callings. I was lonely there (at SCLC), but they were doing their own thing.”
Jackson, now 69, said their common faith, commitment to social justice and dedication to King’s legacy kept them together even as they went their different ways.
“We were determined not to let one bullet kill the whole movement,” he said. “We never stopped fighting.”
And they never stopped getting together, though the reunions became less frequent. Jackson noted that year after year, the foursome still somehow ends up in Selma, Ala., site of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march that horrified the nation and turned the tide in favor of passing the Voting Rights Act.
Lowery has backed Young, Lewis and Jackson at different times during their political endeavors, and the men have stood shoulder to shoulder with SCLC and for other civil rights-related battles.
Three of the four call Atlanta home. (Jackson is based in Chicago, but frequents Atlanta.) Lewis, Lowery and Young live in the same southwest Atlanta neighborhood, but rarely run into each other there.
“I guess it’s like being involved in a battle,” Lewis, 69, said. “We all fought the good fight. We can talk about it, but we don’t have time to look back, because there’s still so much to be done.”
The four men are not often together when the King federal holiday rolls around each January, as each of them is a sought-after speaker for holiday events around the country. When they’re in the same room for funerals or events related to the movement, they are not always seated together, but are usually acknowledged as a group.
Such will likely be the case in Washington in the days leading up to the monument’s unveiling — if the dedication takes place as scheduled. The National Park Service considered postponing it as Hurricane Irene threatened to inundate the nation’s capital. No decision had been announced by midweek.
The King Memorial is scheduled to be dedicated Sunday, the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” He delivered it not far from where the monument stands between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. Aug. 28 is also the 56th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, a killing that became a major catalyst for the civil rights movement, and the day three years ago that Barack Obama was named the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
As King is honored on an anniversary freighted with history, the four men all share a desire for the monument to be a living legacy, not one trapped in stone.
“We cannot freeze his work in a statue,” Jackson said. “The statue is a memorial that we might remember the struggle. He was shot into immortality. The way in which he died illuminated his work and his worth. We must not allow people to stop at the memorial and read his poetry and ignore his policies.”
Lewis, whose office is not far from the memorial, said he has been overwhelmed looking at the statue and reflecting on King’s quotes engraved into the granite.
“Dr. King spoke about (Abraham Lincoln), the emancipator,” Lewis said. “Dr. King was an emancipator, he was a liberator. He liberated not just a people, but a nation. His message is still liberating people.”
Lowery said King now takes his place among the country’s fathers.
“I think it is appropriately placed,” said Lowery. “He introduced a new America. It’s easier to build a monument than a movement. This is a joyous occasion, but it’s not a period. It’s a comma. Our achievements are monumental, but that doesn’t mean the job is finished.”