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, 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.
‘The glue that held us together’
But the dedication of the King Memorial on the National Mall, scheduled for 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.”
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 a bond among football players — strangers from different towns coming together, winning and losing as a unit.
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.”
Choose their own paths
Lowery, 89, remained at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he served under the late Rev. Ralph David Abernathy before he became Abernathy’s successor.
Jackson, 69, 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 also 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 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.”