The Post – 40 Years Later: RFK Remembered

“But suppose God is black? What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?”

Robert Francis Kennedy

Today is the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I still feel his loss. In searching for something to honor this day, I came across a You Tube site with roughly 30 videos of various things about Robert Kennedy and his life. Three which I really liked are:

Robert F. Kennedy Speech: Mindless Menace of Violence in America

Bobby Kennedy: Fearless

Robert Kennedy Tribute: Making a Difference

I was particularly drawn to his speech in the video, Robert Kennedy announces the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. :

The video’s pictures of the people, and the times, as well as his delivery, capture the real emotion and essence of that night. I’ve included part of his speech here:

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time in the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and in what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are Black, considering the evidence evidently is that there were White people who were responsible, you can be filled with bitterness and with hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country and greater polarization, Black people amongst Blacks and White amongst Whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are Black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all White people, I would only say that I can also feel within my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed. And he was killed by a White man. But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus:

‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’

What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be White or they be Black.

So I’d like to ask you tonight, to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah it’s true, but more importantly, to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love, a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence. It is not the end of lawlessness and it’s not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of White people and the vast majority of Black people in this country, want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land. And dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago, ‘To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world,’ let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and our people.”

In listening to him speak, and reading his words, I often wonder what might have happened, had both he and Martin Luther King, Jr. lived. Can you imagine politicians today speaking of “understanding….compassion….love?”

The You Tube site also has a number of video tributes, and that classic last speech of his in Los Angeles, at the Ambassador Hotel, that ended with those words I can still hear on that 1968 TV set: “Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there, too.”

Of course he never made it. A reporter that night, who was right behind Kennedy as they made their way through the Ambassador Hotel pantry shows why. That video is on the You Tube site as well, and it captures in real time, the chaos and panic as Kennedy was shot and the reporter stood in front of Sirhan Sirhan, the gun pointed right at him.

Finally, there are videos showing the funeral, the eulogy by his brother Sen. Ted Kennedy in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and most intense for me – a video of the journey of his funeral train, from New York City to Washington – RFK – Final Journey.

I was only 13, and you’d expect I’d be out with friends. Instead, I spent the entire day watching his train crawl down the eastern seaboard. THAT video haunts me most and I remember to this day, watching all those people choking the tracks, waiting for hours in the June heat, just to see his casket go by. SUCH a sense of loss by millions. That journey normally took 4 hours by train. Instead, it took 8 hours, resulted in the deaths of two people in New Jersey, and disrupted train service throughout the east, as noted in an entry from steamlocomotive.com :

“On June 8, 1968, the 21 car funeral train of Robert F. Kennedy left New York City for Washington, DC. The train was led by GG1 number 4901 with number 4903 trailing, and ended with Penn Central open-platform business car number 120 carrying the body of the late Senator.

A three car pilot train pulled by GG1 number 4932 ran ahead of the funeral train and GG1s numbers 4900 and 4910 followed light as back-up motive power.

At Elizabeth, NJ, the crowd moved onto the tracks to get a view of the special train, just as “The Admiral”, heading to New York City from Chicago, was rounding a curve. “The Admiral’s” GG1 sounded its horn, but some of the people in the crowd did not clear the track in time and sadly two were killed and four seriously injured.

After the tragic accident the Penn Central ordered all train movement stopped until the special train passed. The funeral train arrived in Washington’s Union Station four hours behind schedule and had caused disruption to the entire railroad.”

The remainder of the journey was described in an excerpt from Robert Kennedy: His Life, by Evan Thomas, on the Washington Post website:

The thousand or so passengers stumbled off the train at Washington’s Union Station shortly after 9 p.m., to the booming drums of the Navy Band. Down Constitution Avenue, past the Justice Department … to the Lincoln Memorial where everyone sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” one last time … across the bridge to Arlington National Cemetery. A light rain had stopped. The moon hung heavy and full over the Potomac. By candlelight and TV light, the weary pallbearers – old friends like David Hackett, trusted aides like John Seigenthaler, family champions like Steve Smith – hoisted the casket and stumbled up the hill to the knoll where John F. Kennedy lay buried. A gravesite had been chosen for Robert about thirty yards away.

When Robert had helped design JFK’s grave, he had disagreed with his brother’s widow. RFK wanted a plain white cross. Jackie desired a grander and more elegant memorial. Today, President Kennedy’s grave spouts an eternal flame, and a massive black slab bears his name. On a sweeping curve of marble are carved the heroic words of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, “Let the word go forth from this time and place … that the torch has been passed …..” Beyond lies the federal city and the great, glistening monuments to Lincoln and Washington.

Robert Kennedy’s resting place is to the side, down a narrow alley shielded by some small trees. On a block of marble facing his grave are carved fragments of his two best speeches, his peroration from the Day of Affirmation speech to the South Africans (“Each time a man stands up for an ideal … he sends a tiny ripple of hope ….”) and the lesson from Aeschylus he delivered in a slum in Indianapolis on the day Martin Luther King was shot (“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair …. comes wisdom ….”). A small, plain white cross stands by a stone slab inscribed with his name and the years of his birth and death. In contrast to the grandeur of JFK’s grave, the effect is unadorned and a little lonely. One thinks of his struggle to overcome fear and wonders what, if he had lived, he might have done.

I watched it all, the whole morning, afternoon, evening, and night. I watched, just blown away by the faces along those tracks…and by the impact of the realization that one man’s life could make such a difference to so many. And for 40 years, I have felt that man’s loss.

There is a book, RFK Funeral Train by Paul Fusco, that contains photos along that train’s journey. Even now, looking at all those people, I choke up. The description from this UK website, Foto 8, shows the worldwide appeal of those photos…and the man:

“RFK Funeral Train
by Paul Fusco
Softcover -Signed Copy

A uniquely profound record of one of the defining moments of the twentieth century. These emotional photographs depict the track-side scenes as hundred of thousands of people stood patiently in the searing heat of June 8th 1968 to watch the funeral train carrying RFK’s body passed by.

This set of photographs by Fusco lay undiscovered for 30 years, never published until first appearing as an exhibition in the late 1990s.

Now out of print the original Softcover book is a collector’s item, sold here as a rare signed copy.”

Wanting that book, I checked around and it’s only available as “collector’s copies” that run anywhere from $75-250 or 100 pounds on the UK site. So, not in my budget. But if you click here, that will take you to the Digital Journalist’s website entry for the RFK Funeral train. There you’ll see 15 thumbnail pictures from the book that you can click on and enlarge. At least to me, those pictures say it all, and keep the memory alive in my heart.

I leave you with a last quote, another one I try to remember as I live my life, and the answer when anyone thinks they alone cannot make a difference to another… or to this world:

“Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

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