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."
Follow Errin Haines at www.twitter.com/emarvelous
- Switched at birth, man raised in poverty...
- Court: Mormon church, members not liable in...
- Obama: Income inequality a defining challenge
- 50 things you might not know about 15 of your...
- Research: Native American genes have Eurasian...
- Actor Paul Walker dies in car crash; was...
- Detroit officially enters bankruptcy
- Newtown releases 911 calls showing anguish...
- Obama: Income inequality a defining... 75
- Croatians vote against same-sex marriage 43
- Court: Mormon church, members not... 33
- Fast food outlets planning strike for... 25
- Obama declares health care law is... 20
- Notre Dame sues over health care law's... 20
- Detroit officially enters bankruptcy 18
- Research: Native American genes have... 18