On June 8, 1968, a 21-car train carried the body of slain New York senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy from New York’s Penn Station to Washington D.C.’s Union Station. Before airplanes and the interstate highway system, the train was a defining feature of the burial proceedings for great leaders. Over a century earlier, a train transported the body of Abraham Lincoln from Washington to his Springfield, Illinois home. Other deceased presidents—Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, William McKinley, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower—took similar trips.
Though Robert F. Kennedy never served as president, he established a profoundly meaningful bond with the American people during the tumultuous 1960s. With the nation mired in war and deeply divided at home, RFK took the risky step of challenging an incumbent president of his own party, Lyndon Johnson.
The RFK who campaigned for president bore little resemblance to the hard-charging, vengeful and unforgiving young man who had once worked for Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy and who served as the bare-knuckled enforcer of John F. Kennedy’s political campaigns. The suffering he endured following his brother’s 1963 assassination had softened RFK’s tough image; the man born to enormous privilege and known for his ruthlessness became more sympathetic to the downtrodden and dispossessed. During his brief 82-day campaign for the Democratic nomination, he traveled to some of the poorest regions of the United States, supported striking farm workers and lent his name to the burgeoning anti-war movement. RFK was the only white politician in America who could walk through the streets of both white and Black working-class neighborhoods and be embraced by both.
One of the most powerful moments of his campaign took place on April 4, when civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Campaigning in Indianapolis at the time, Kennedy climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck to deliver the shocking news to a largely African American crowd. “For those of you who are Black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.” No other white man in America could deliver that message with the same credible empathy.
With King dead, Kennedy became for many disaffected people—Black and white—the only national leader who commanded respect and enthusiasm. On Vietnam, RFK, who had previously supported his brother’s military escalation of the conflict, now called for a negotiated settlement. Domestically, Kennedy believed that convincing poor people of all colors to pursue their shared class interests offered the only solution to the deep racial hostility tearing the nation apart. “We have to convince the Negroes and poor whites that they have common interests,” Kennedy told journalist Jack Newfield. “If we can reconcile those two hostile groups, and then add the kids, you can really turn this country around.”
Two months later on June 5, after winning the crucial California primary, RFK was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian who opposed the senator’s pro-Israel stance. Twenty-five hours later, he died at only 42 years old—even younger than his brother John F. Kennedy, 46, when he was slain in November 1963.
Planning the Logistics—and Optics—of a Funeral Train
Once it became clear that RFK was not going to survive his wounds, family members started planning for the aftermath. They decided to hold the funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, followed by a burial at Arlington National Cemetery the same day. The main practical question was how they would get the thousands of mourners from New York to Washington. The train seemed not only a logical choice, but also the most appropriate one for RFK. “His people live along the railway tracks,” reflected economist John Kenneth Galbraith, alluding to the senator’s working-class supporters.
Deciding on a funeral mass and burial 225 miles apart presented the Kennedy team with a logistical nightmare. They had to develop a guest list for the mass, then narrow that list down to those who would be invited on the train. They started with nearly 10,000 names culled from various campaign lists dating back to JFK’s presidential bid in 1960. Just when they thought they had settled on the guests, Senator Edward Kennedy, the last surviving brother, added more—including old Boston friends. “Looking back on it,” legislative aide Carter Burden reflected, “I’m amazed how arbitrary the whole thing was.”
At the same time, they needed to negotiate with Penn Central to cobble together enough train cars. Eventually, the railroad arranged for two locomotives to pull the 21 mismatched cars. They loaded the bar car with plenty of alcohol and ordered extra first-class meals so the guests could dine on steaks, hamburgers and cheesecake. The last five cars were reserved for family members and close friends, with the casket sitting in the rearmost one, a special observation car with picture windows on each side. To make sure people lining the tracks could view the casket, the family requested it be placed on red velvet chairs and selected a rotating honor guard to stand at the head and foot for 15-minute intervals.
Who Was on the Train?
RFK’s body was flown to New York for a requiem mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on the morning of June 8, attended by some 2,000 people, including President Lyndon Johnson. Afterward, about 700 invited guests boarded 30 buses for the short trip to Penn Station, where they were screened by the Secret Service before being allowed to enter the train.
“You could tell the story of Robert Kennedy by telling the story of the people on this train,” family friend Bill Walton told the journalist Jean Stein. They came from all parts of RFK’s life. In addition to campaign aides and advisors, his extended family was present, including Jackie Kennedy and her two children John and Caroline, who joined dozens of other Kennedy kids, running through the cars and rolling on the floor. At one point, 7-year-old John Jr. stepped out on the open platform and, apparently not knowing how to respond to the crowds, started blessing them as if he were the Pope.
Many prominent members of JFK’s administration, including Robert McNamara and Walter Heller, hunkered down in the smoking car. Also on board were liberal Hollywood stars such as George Plimpton and Shirley MacLaine; organized labor figures such as Walter Reuther; and civil rights leaders John Lewis, Julian Bond and Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Though an eclectic group, it was still fairly mainstream. “There weren’t many radicals on that train,” recalled civil rights activist Ivanhoe Donaldson.
A Tragic Accident
As they emerged from the tunnel under the Hudson River into the bright sunshine of northern New Jersey, the passengers got their first glimpse of the enormous crowds gathered to view the train. On the river beside the train tracks, passengers spied a little red Harbor boat with the crew standing at attention on the deck, saluting as the train passed. The name of the boat was John F. Kennedy. In the marshlands of northern Jersey, hardened workers stood atop trucks with their hands placed over their hearts. One man knelt in prayer by the trackside.
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Not anticipating this outpouring of emotion, the organizers and Penn Central had failed to make special security arrangements, resulting in yet another tragedy. In Elizabeth, two locals, Antoinette Severini and John Curia, joined a crowd spilling out onto the tracks. By the time Curia saw a northbound train coming from the opposite direction, it was too late. He tried to pull Severini, who was holding her three-year-old grandchild in her arms, out of harm’s way. Severini tossed her grandchild to strangers on the platform as she and Curia were crushed under the train’s wheels. Reporters on the train learned about the accident, but refrained from mentioning it to grieving members of the Kennedy clan.
The Kennedy organizers made frantic calls to Penn Central, insisting the train would not move from the Elizabeth Station until they received a guarantee that such an accident would not happen again. In response, the railroad canceled all northbound trains and sent a “pilot train” as a security measure, to provide warning that the Kennedy procession was approaching.
‘What the Hell Was the Nation Going to Do Now?’
RFK’s funeral train continued to pass through a succession of small stations, clusters of towns and big urban centers. In New Brunswick, a lone bugler stood on the station platform sounding taps. In rural areas, girls flocked to the railroad on horseback, and boys looked down from trees. Outside Philadelphia, a junior high school band played “America the Beautiful.” At the Philadelphia train station, onlookers linked arms and sang the “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” chorus of the Civil War anthem “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” one of RFK’s favorite songs.
By the time they reached Philadelphia, the train passengers had started walking around, greeting old friends, exchanging baby pictures. “There was always that ludicrous mixture of heartbreak and how to get your sandwiches,” observed columnist Joseph Alsop. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was struck by the “mixture of grief and hilarious reminiscence.” At one point Schlesinger turned to Kenny O’Donnell, JFK’s unofficial chief of staff, and noted the “marvelous crowds.” O’Donnell was not impressed. “Yes,” he replied glumly, “but what are they good for now?”
Echoing O’Donnell, journalist Jack Newfield reflected that RFK’s death created a void on the American Left: “No one came after him who could speak simultaneously for the unemployed black teenager and the white worker trapped in a dead-end job and feeling misunderstood.” Many of those on board had been involved with the Kennedy family for decades. They had already buried one brother; now, five years later, another’s limitless promise had been extinguished. “I think perhaps one of the saddest aspects of the funeral train was that an awful lot of people felt there was nowhere to go,” recalled author and activist Michael Harrington. According to Roger Hilsman, who served in the State Department under President Kennedy, all the conversations eventually led to one urgent question: “What the hell was the nation going to do now?”
READ MORE: The Revolution That Was 1968
‘Everyone Was Just Numb’
The depth of such desperation showed in the countless trackside mourners. Many passengers ventured on the platform between trains to try to get a better feel for the mesmerizing crowds. “Inside the train, you couldn’t hear anything,” said humorist Art Buchwald. “But on the platform, you could hear the cheers, and the people crying.” Standing between cars, Carter Burden recalled, allowed him to get close enough to the people to hear what they were saying: “It became [an] incredibly intense and moving and stirring experience.”
Though there were only five Black women on the train besides Coretta Scott King and her small entourage, RFK staffer Millie Williams noted, “We were well-represented on the outside. That’s where all my people were.” Marian Wright Edelman, a veteran of the civil rights struggle in the South, said that Kennedy represented “the last hope” after King’s murder, as seen by the outpouring of minority support that had propelled him to victory in the California primary.
Gazing out the window, journalist Newfield witnessed “tens of thousands of poor Blacks, already bereft from the loss of Martin Luther King, weeping and waving goodbye on one side of the railroad tracks.” And alongside those Black mourners were “tens of thousands of almost poor whites on the other side of the train, waving American flags, standing at attention, hands over their hearts, tears running down their faces.”
Of course, all eyes focused on the last car carrying the casket and grieving family members. “The casket was raised up so that he could be seen through the window,” Burden recalled, “and all around the ledge just beneath window level were paper cups and Coke cans and half-eaten sandwiches and overfilled ashtrays… The family had been waiting out the long afternoon like everybody else on the train.” A few family members, including Edward Kennedy, stood on the back platform greeting the crowds. Ethel remained alone, dressed starkly in black with a veil covering her face, hunched over, her head resting against the casket and her hands grasping rosary beads. “It was the only moment,” Burden reflected, “that I saw her cry.”
Somewhere between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Ethel decided to walk through each car, accompanied by her 15-year-old son Joe. “I’m Joe Kennedy. Thank you. Thank you for coming,” he repeated dozens of times. “Thank you for your sympathy.” Ethel followed, smiling, and shaking hands. “We appreciate your coming. Thank you.”
As RFK’s body moved closer to its final resting place, the occupants grew quiet again. Everyone felt exhausted. The air conditioning broke down in several cars. They ran out of food and booze. The toilets overflowed. “I think at the end everyone was just numb,” Milton Gwirtzman told Jean Stein. The mood of the crowds also seemed to shift. Russell Baker noticed “for the first time all day not a single face in the crowd smiled.” Those who greeted the train earlier in its journey shared “not so much a sense of mourning, as a sense of excitement at being part of an American event.” By the time they reached Baltimore, people seemed more aware of the gravity of the moment.
A Million-Plus Mourners
The trip lasted for eight hours—twice as long as expected—because more than one million people had massed along the tracks and milled in stations to honor their slain hero. Some waited for hours. Others arrived as word spread by radio or television. It was a microcosm of America on a summer Saturday afternoon: working people, businessmen, housewives, Boy Scouts, American Legionnaires. Little Leaguers stopped their games to rush to the tracks, some saluting while others placed their baseball caps over their hearts. Signs floated above the crowd: “God help you,” “RFK, RIP,” “Bless RFK.” The most common one read, “Bye Bobby.”
Dave Powers, who had been part of the Kennedy Irish mafia dating back to JFK’s first campaign for Congress in 1946, did not want the train ride to end. “I wish this thing could go through every state, just keep going,” he said.
I was one of those who managed to catch a glimpse of the RFK funeral train as it sped through my town of Darby, a poor, racially mixed neighborhood a few miles south of the Philadelphia 30th Street Station. The train passed on a track only a few hundred yards from our house. On that sweltering Saturday afternoon, my father, older brother and I stood on a bridge, looking down. I will never forget the scene, a snapshot of unity: old and young people, African American and white, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. A group of Catholic nuns prayed near the tracks, rosary beads in their hands. As the train passed below, I spied Edward Kennedy, the last surviving brother, astride a platform on the last car waving gently to the crowd. Behind him sat the flag-draped coffin.
The interracial, cross-class nature of those who turned out that day has left a tantalizing question: What if RFK had lived? Could he have wrestled the nomination from Vice President Hubert Humphrey and built a powerful coalition that would defeat GOP nominee Richard Nixon in the fall? Tragically, we will never know the answer to those questions. But as the nation grows even more fragmented, it is useful to reflect on a moment in time when, through his passion and commitment, RFK managed to hold together the delicate center of American politics—if only for an eight-hour train ride from New York to Washington D.C.