45 years after death, recalling Robert Kennedy’s funeral train

June 6, 2013

All these years later, John Malone still remembers the last words of Robert F. Kennedy’s last speech: “. . . and now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!”

There was hope in that, momentum.

John had finished his junior year at Seton Hall and was at his parents’ home, in Elizabeth, N.J., watching coverage of the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries for California and South Dakota on the family TV console. It was just before midnight at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and Kennedy, having won both, stood in front of his supporters. He was jovial at first but became more insistent as he talked about ending the country’s divisions, “whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups, or over the war in Vietnam . . .

John was squarely behind the New York senator. “I was probably miffed that Robert Kennedy hadn’t gotten into the race earlier,” he says.

“On to Chicago!”


John was about to turn off the set and go to bed when the announcer’s voice came back in a frenzy.

“Senator Kennedy has been shot!”

Oh my God, not again, John thought. It had been only two months since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and five years since President John F. Kennedy suffered the same fate.

On to New York! Where Robert Kennedy’s funeral would be held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and where Ted Kennedy would say, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to 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.”

On to Washington! Where his body would be taken in a funeral train procession to Union Station and from there driven by hearse to Arlington National Cemetery, where the Harvard University Band, hastily reassembled because students were out of school, would try to hold its horns steady as it played “America the Beautiful.”

The Penn Central train carrying Kennedy’s body would cut a swath through a small-town and largely rural America populated by people he had spoken passionately to, and about, during his 82-day campaign. Up to 2 million people lined the tracks to bear witness. Some who walked over to the tracks that day, like Malone, can take that same walk. And when they do, they sometimes take measure of what Kennedy’s legacy meant to them then — and today. And how his hope and convictions for this nation might be reflected in the lives they went on to lead.

They were black and white, young and old, often pressed against one another’s shoulders. There were mothers with curlers in their hair and toddlers on their hips. There were middle-aged men in Bermuda shorts who looked as if they had dashed over, their lawn mowers left growling under the sun. There were children dressed in seas of plaid, not able to fully comprehend why their mothers’ faces were so swollen.

Mourners showed up in bathing suits and in dark suits with dark ties.

Kids climbed to the tops of trees, while others readied their signs to wave — God Bless You RFK, We Love You Bobby.

They hung off bridges. They balanced on posts and clung to the middle of wire fences like flies caught in a web. Some African American women fell to their knees in anguish, and some fell in prayer.

A group of bridesmaids tossed their flowers at the train.

Occasionally, Ethel Kennedy, a widow now and mother of 10 children who was pregnant with her 11th, joined Ted Kennedy outside on the last car’s platform, waving to spectators. Her oldest son walked through the train, sticking his hand out to journalists and celebrities and family associates aboard, saying, “I’m Joe Kennedy.”

John Malone has lived in Elizabeth his whole life — and now he’s standing by the underpass off Mary Street for the first time since June 8, 1968. He was 20 but looks today much as he did then — a full head of neatly parted hair, clean-shaven, eyeglasses. That Saturday, he’d been watching the broadcast of the Kennedy funeral. When he understood that a train carrying the senator’s coffin would be coming through town, he wanted to see it.

Just a few blocks away from his home was an embankment he could climb to the tracks. It was jammed with mourners, but he could see perfectly fine from the street. The hot air was already thick as paint. Nearby a woman moaned, “Oh, Bobby.”

John didn’t have to wait long before the 21-car train came into view.

“You could see the casket from the windows on the train,” he says. And then, just like that, a hush settled over. As he strolled back home, a train from Chicago came careering into Elizabeth’s West Grand Station. The conductor pulled his emergency brake as soon as he saw the crowds overflowing across all the tracks, but he saw them too late. The train plowed into bystanders, killing two.

As John walked on unaware, he was trying to understand how Kennedy’s campaign had come to this end.

“I felt some sort of connection,” he says.

Kennedy’s death hit families such as the Malones hard. “My family believed in the Holy Trinity: Irish and Catholic and Democrat,” Malone says. “John Kennedy getting elected as an Irish Catholic Democrat, it was like Babe Ruth. In my household, it was expected that Robert Kennedy was going to fullfil the promises of John. That’s just the way it was going to be.”

Malone believes he glimpsed what a President Robert Kennedy might have been like — the moral compass he would have led by. “What struck me about Kennedy was his sense of fairness and equality,” he says.

John spent the summer of ’68 in a hard hat, pushing a wheelbarrow, carrying bags of cement, handling a jackhammer. He was protected from having to serve in Vietnam through his college years by deferments — a policy Kennedy believed immoral. Malone graduated from Seton Hall Law School in 1972, started his general law practice and married an Elizabeth girl in 1980. But he wanted to be more involved in what was going on.

“I was very much interested in politics, and it just seemed to me that politics and law went together,” he says. He became the chairman of the Democratic committee in Elizabeth for 10 years and the county Democratic chairman from 1987 to 1992. That was the same year he became Judge Malone of the Superior Court.

Forty-five years on, Malone says he’s never stopped thinking about Kennedy.

“I think the death of Robert Kennedy was more profound than the death of John Kennedy in terms of how it impacted on the country,” he says.

He believes RFK would have been the Democratic nominee for president and considers, instead, the “trauma of the Nixon presidency” — the escalation of war, Watergate. How we, as a nation, might have responded to Kennedy’s call for embracing our better selves.

Malone retired from the bench last year, having spent 20 years serving in the name of fairness and equality.

When the train pulled into Philadelphia, there were estimates of nearly 20,000 people crowding the station — mostly African Americans. They began to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with such force that inside, passengers began to weep. And when it pulled through the nearby borough Sharon Hill, 15-year old Cordelia Fisher was waiting.

She’s standing on the steep bank of Sharon Hill Station now, looking back at a lifetime. “It was packed,” Fisher says. “I mean, you could see people all up and down.”

The anguish young Cordelia felt was as much for the Kennedy family as for the country itself. “All them children,” she says, still astonished. “And the thought of being without your father.”

In some ways, she is still mourning — for the loss of her own father, Howard Fisher, who died in January at 88. “He was truly my hero,” she says. “He taught me a lot about history.” And his admiration for the Kennedys became hers as well.

“I just adored him,” she says, “so anything that came out of his mouth was, you know, the Bible to me.”

She lives in his home now and has refashioned the living room into a kind of shrine to him. One wall is covered with plaques and citations — given for a lifetime of service to the fire company where he was a 50-year volunteer and to his church, for Christian education. His soft green recliner in front of the TV remains angled back, as if he has just run into the kitchen for a snack.

In the Fisher household, there were always the current editions of Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, the Inquirer, Newsweek and Time, which made clear the news of the day, and in 1968, Cordelia was keenly aware of the violence of the civil rights movement. Sharon Hill was a black community when she was growing up, and there was a sense of everyone looking out for one another.

“We just weren’t confronted with that kind of racist violence in our circle,” she says. “If it happened, it wasn’t done directly to us. . . . We were an all-black high school. Basically 98 percent. So all the schools we played in sports we had a lot of problems with. . . . I guess you have to say you knew your place.”

But even the most insulated black communities felt King’s assassination to the core. And those same communities could feel both the promise and the risk of Kennedy’s bid for the presidency.

“With Robert [killed], it was just like we were getting madder and madder,” she says.

That violent year was just the start of a string of heartbreaks for the teenager. In 1969, her mother died of a brain aneurysm. The next year, her boyfriend, with whom she had talked about marriage, drowned. “And I said: ‘All hope is gone. I’m finished.’ ” After graduation, she set off to the historically black Lane College in Tennessee — in part out of a need for escape — but the move ushered in “a rude awakening,” she says. “The racism down there was right in your face.”

The combative Fisher didn’t exactly hide her anger. “I went to Penney’s one day,” she remembers. “I was the only one in the shoe department. The salesman was on the phone. While he was on the phone, some white people came in. After he got off the phone, and I had the shoe I wanted right in my hand, he went right over to them. I took that shoe and threw it as far across the store as I could.”

The subsequent years brought her a daughter, a career as an administrator and, now, the joys of being a grandmother. But a new era of gun violence conjures up the turbulence she remembers from the ’60s.

“After Sandy Hook, I just lost it,” she says. “And the oldest [grandchild] will be in kindergarten in September.” When President Obama’s gun proposals largely fell short in Congress, that left her furious — and motivated. “I’m going to get into that fight,” she says. “Come on, people. . . . If I didn’t have grandchildren, it probably wouldn’t affect me as much. But now I’ve got three girls. Three little girls . . . and it’s getting to me.”

She’s saying this across the empty train track. The past is intermingling with the present — tied, in part, by guns, but also by her guiding strength in life: family. For just a moment, she is 15 again, and the train is headed on to Washington. She is walking home with her friend and her friend’s two brothers and mother amongst a devastated crowd. They talk about John Kennedy’s family as well as Robert’s and try to imagine how a family can endure such sorrow.

When the train pulled through a stretch of tracks in North East, Md., the only black faces of the 60 or so people dispersed on both sides belonged to Michael Scott, who had turned 15 the day before, and his mother, Margaret Scott. Michael’s father, McKinley, was working that day: He was a trackman supervisor for the Pennsylvania Railroad — charged to monitor “for any shenanigans that would disrupt the train.”

Even though the sun was sliding into the horizon by then, it was still “a hot, hot, just steaming day,” Michael remembers. He and his mother didn’t wait for more than a half-hour when “you could see this train moving slowly, mournfully slowly.”

“He was the hope,” Scott says of Kennedy. “I perceived him to be David, and he was going to slay Goliath.”

Those spring months had been wrenching for the entire nation, but now the dark shadows of violence were just about to engulf the Scott family.

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education brought an end to segregated public education. Five years later, Michael was about to enter elementary school, and, “my parents decided, Well, the first thing we’re going to do is integrate the North East school system,” he says. In nearby Charlestown, an elementary school had just been built, “so my parents told me about how I’d be going to a school having white classmates. And I was expected to be cordial, respectful, you know. Nonconfrontational, basically.”

He would be one of about four black children in the school. In his second-grade report card, his teacher wrote, “Michael plays well with others.”

In 1966, McKinley Scott became the first elected president of the Cecil County NAACP chapter. By 1968, he had set his sights on getting elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, and the area was dotted with posters of him. His platform was public accommodations and education. “Public accommodations being able to eat in a restaurant, go to the movies,” Michael says. In fact, Michael didn’t realize he couldn’t sit anywhere he wanted in a movie theater until his older brother, George, took them to see “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in 1963. Immediately, George began leading him upstairs at the North East movie theater, which didn’t sit well with Michael. What about downstairs?

“That’s just how it is,” George explained.

And that was how some folks in Cecil County wanted to keep it. With his visible political ambitions and NAACP efforts, their father was attracting attention of all kinds.

One night in late July 1968, Michael was in bed when, out of the darkness of his sleep, he heard a piercing, high-pitched scream. Then an explosion. His father ran to him, screaming, “Get down! Get down!” All the windows had blown out, and broken glass had cascaded in through the venetian blinds, tinkling through the house like a music box.

Someone had thrown a bomb just outside Michael’s bedroom window, but “they didn’t throw it far enough,” he says. No one was hurt.

For the better part of the next week, Michael’s father and grandfather took turns guarding their houses from his grandfather’s attic window as evening came on: “My grandfather had a shotgun; my father had a .22.”

There were no other attempts. There were also no arrests.

One Saturday the next month, Michael came walking up his driveway and saw a strange car, then a white man in a suit sitting in the kitchen.

“What’s going on?” Michael asked.

“Are you Michael Scott?”

Michael nodded.

“Mr. Scott, get what’s important to you,” the man said. “They plan on blowing you off of this hill tonight. And we’re going to take you away.”

McKinley was away that evening. The FBI agents had already evacuated the grandparents next door and promptly got Michael and his mother to the nearby police barrack. Nearly a dozen men got into position — one in an apple tree, others in the woods in back, in the bushes. In the early morning, agents watched a car driving back and forth past the house. They caught the driver, Johnnie C. Johnson, who was allegedly carrying more than a dozen sticks of dynamite.

Michael Scott is standing in front of the train tracks where he was 45 years ago, and, like Cordelia Fisher, he lives in the house he grew up in. McKinley, who went on to become a director in the Engineering Department at Amtrak before retiring in 1990, died last year. Standing in this spot still brings “some of the energy, that sadness from April to June out — it’s still there,” Scott says. “It always will be.”

An Amtrak train bustles by, and Scott grins. “My father’s second wife,” he says of the train — and all it represents.

He’s thinking about the passing of time, what he’s lived through — the ongoing complexity of black people mixing with white people. The evolution and also how far we still have to go. He’s the only black member of his church. He has more white friends than black friends. He says that to his black friends, he’s kind of an oddity. When he worked for Barneys as a sales associate in San Francisco, he says he was the only black man on the store’s six floors. Even the guy in HR hadn’t realized that until Scott pointed it out, he says.

As he comes away from the tracks, he remembers another story from that awful spring. It came back to him a few months ago, when he ran into a woman named Catherine Benjamin and asked her if she was connected to Bob Benjamin of Benjamin Supplies, in North East. Scott had never forgotten that Bob “showed up the day after the bombing, looked around, found out that we had nine window panes blown out of the house. He replaced every window pane. He was white. And would not accept one red penny.”

He told that story to Catherine, and as she listened, she began to cry. “That’s my father-in-law,” she told him. “He had a good heart. That’s what he did. He helped people.”

Robert Kennedy would have appreciated that act of compassion, but had he lived to be president, he would have hoped for — and expected — even more from his countrymen.

Six days after King was killed, he told a crowd: “But today’s difficult issue is not whether white Americans will help black Americans, but whether we will help ensure the well-being of every citizen. It is not whether white and black will love one another, but whether they will love America.”

David Rowell’s novel about the Kennedy funeral train, “The Train of Small Mercies,” was published in 2011.

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