Lauren Victoria Burke, File, Associated Press
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," said Young, 79. "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.
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