The Photo at the RFK Funeral
Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train
June 8, 1968
There is a photo I’m quite fond of. It was taken from the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy who was assassinated 50 years ago this week. The caption I found with it is: A family in Harmans, Maryland, pays their respects as Robert Kennedy’s funeral procession passes by on its way to Washington, DC. Photograph by Paul Fusco
On June 8, 1968, after a funeral mass was held at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, a train took the casket of Robert Kennedy to Washington DC where he would be laid to rest not far from the grave of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in Arlington National Cemetery.
Kennedy’s train was reminiscent of the funeral train that bore Abraham Lincoln’s remains from Washington to Springfield, Illinois 103 years before. And like the Lincoln train, it moved through both city and countryside with thousands of Americans lined up to pay their respects and give a final tribute to the presidential candidate. Along the way were prominent citizens, elected officials, veterans, police, youngsters in baseball and Boy Scout uniforms, rich, poor, Black, White, Hispanic, young and old. Many stood quietly as the train passed, others wept openly and many stood at attention and saluted. Many brought signs “Goodbye Bobby” or “Farewell Bobby.” Many brought US flags which were on staffs or held up by two people. Thousands brought cameras to record the event.
They had gathered hours beforehand waiting for the train to pass. The train which departed at 1 pm from New York was to pass through Elizabeth, over the Delaware River at Trenton, Philadelphia, Sharon Hill, Wilmington, North East, over the Susquehanna River, through Baltimore with the final destination at Union Station in Washington DC. Because of an accident that killed bystanders waiting for the train, the entire North East travel corridor was closed so the funeral train could make its way slowly south. It arrived at 9:30 pm necessitating an evening burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
This photo shows a family of seven lined up with the children in order of birth. The children are wearing swimming trunks and are dirty, perhaps from playing before the train arrived. The parents appear to be in their 30s and both appear to be of a blue collar worker family. The father is wearing a soiled uniform of perhaps a gas station attendant, a maintenance worker or construction job. The mother is dressed in shirt and pants, perhaps a stay at home mom. The image is one of a lower middle class family.
Everyone is standing at attention and in a silent, somber pose. The father may have been a veteran and may have instructed the children to stand this way as the train passed. The photograph is a poignant and powerful image of the outpouring of grief and sadness at the assassination of yet another public figure.
Just weeks earlier Kennedy had spoken to a crowd in Indianapolis the evening of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King saying, “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 whether they be black….And let’s 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 for our people.”