Retropolis

Reflecting on RFK’s 200-mile funeral train


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Even before the solemn morning of June 8, 1968, Steve Northup’s camera had captured the year’s most tumultuous moments — the aftermath of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the riots that burned Washington, the funeral in Atlanta, the 100,000 mourners.

So just two months later, when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was also assassinated, it was again Northup, then a Washington Post staff photographer, who was sent to witness history. For eight hours, he rode a 21-car train from New York to the District carrying the senator’s body. “It felt,” Northup said recently, “like we were on a train to the end of an era.”

Here are Northup’s photos, most of them never before published, and his recollections of that day.

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

More than 2,000 people gathered inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for the funeral, among them MLK’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and President Lyndon B. Johnson. It had been just five years since Bobby's brother, President John F. Kennedy, was murdered in Dallas.

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Outside the church, thousands more listened by loudspeaker as Ted Kennedy, the last living Kennedy brother, delivered a raw, unannounced eulogy. Bobby should be remembered, Kennedy said, “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.”

When it ended, Northup followed the Kennedys and other attendees — including King — to the train station. What he saw along the 200-mile journey that followed, Northup said, was “a cross section of our nation.”

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Northup remembers brides tossing bouquets at the passing train and mourners reaching out to touch it, as if they were “trying to make one last contact with this wonderful man.” And “everybody cried,” Northup said. “Everybody.”

Inside, “the train became a rolling wake.” At one point, Bobby’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, and their eldest son, Joseph, walked the aisles offering handshakes and thank-yous.

“We were bound together by the tragedy of the year,” Northup said, “and by our affection for this poor man who was lying in a box at the back of the train.”

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

Steve Northup/The Washington Post

The trip was supposed to take four hours. Instead, it lasted eight. The processional entered Washington and continued straight to Arlington National Cemetery, where the pallbearers — led by young Joseph — rested RFK’s mahogany coffin beside the grave of his late brother.

“1968 was one hell of a year,” Northup said. “I didn’t know if the nation was going to survive it or not. It looked like our fabric was just shredding. And (RFK’s death) was one more rip in the cloth, and a big one.”

Steve Northup/The Washington Post