On this day 50 years ago, Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.), three days after being felled by an assassin in California, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, 30 yards from the grave of his assassinated older brother, President John F. Kennedy.
Robert Kennedy, 42, was struck down at a Los Angeles hotel while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. He died two months after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Like King, Kennedy had stressed the need for social justice and had called for an end to the Vietnam War.
Thousands of mourners attended Kennedy’s funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. In his eulogy, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, “My brother need not be idolized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. [He should] be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering, and tried to heal it, saw war, and tried to stop it.
“Those of us who loved him, and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say, “Why?” I dream of things that never were and say, “Why not?”’”
A special funeral train then brought Kennedy’s casket from New York to Washington, D.C., while hundreds of thousands of people lined the tracks. It took the train eight hours to make the usually four-hour journey. Members of Kennedy’s large family walked through the train to talk with the invited travelers who made the sad trip with them.
In the April 3 issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote: “Trains in the Northeast corridor do not run through upscale neighborhoods. The people who spontaneously turned out to watch the funeral train pass by — Kennedy’s biographer Evan Thomas says there were a million — were, by appearance, mostly working class, and there were whites and African-Americans often standing in clusters together.
“In 2018, looking back at those images, as the train approaches the terminal and the light begins to fade, you realize that you are watching the final hours of the great Democratic coalition that had dominated American politics since the election of Franklin Roosevelt, in 1932 — the coalition that would fracture six months later with the election of Richard Nixon, and which is now as dead as Robert Kennedy.”
The train arrived at Union Station shortly after 9 p.m. Many mourners who had made the 210-mile journey walked from the station down Constitution Avenue to Arlington to attend the only nighttime burial in the cemetery’s history.