1968 was no ordinary time and Robert Kennedy was no ordinary candidate. The wave of young idealists that propelled Bernie’s campaign in 2016 felt similar to that infamous year when Bobby had fired up America’s youth.
Including a barely teenage me.
I never met Robert Kennedy but I was always grateful I was able to bid Bobby a final goodbye.
On a sweltering Friday in June of 1968, I joined the hundreds of thousands who lined up outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in N.Y.C to pay their final respects to their fallen hero.
Americans were in a state of disbelief.
It could not happen again – yet there it was. With terrible symmetry an assassin had struck down Robert Kennedy in a moment of triumph, dying early in the morning of June 5th and once again a nation was left to watch and grieve and wonder.
The awful drama that had played out on TV the past few days had left us all, young and old, feeling lost and helpless.
Still reeling from the horror of the King assassination a mere two months earlier, few will ever forget the shock of that night in June and what it would mean. RFK was a man who spoke to so many people in so many different ways. After that terrible night of June 4th when Robert Kennedy was assassinated – all the hopes and dreams ended on the floor of a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.
For four full days, until his body was lowered to its grave on the green slopes of Arlington near his brother John, the television screens glowed through almost every waking hour, not unlike those four days in November 1963.
The Kennedy family had flown his body from California to N.Y. where he would lay in state at St. Patrick’s Cathedral giving the public an opportunity to pay their respects on Friday.
Like millions of others engulfed by the drama of those past few days, I needed to touch the event myself, to establish even the smallest piece of it, to see it and believe it and lock it in personal recollection. A half-hour train ride to Manhattan from my suburban home was all that was necessary.
As a 13-year-old who had volunteered my afternoons working on Kennedy’s Campaign for President, it seemed essential.
These Are Not Ordinary Times
In the tumultuous spring of 1968, Bobby Kennedy beckoned the youth of America to join him in his presidential fight.
Mobilized and energized with the earnestness of a teenager I responded.
Sure, those who liked “Clean Gene” spoke to the college kids with his single anti-war issue.
But Bobby was about the hope.
RFK had a sense of outrage and he spoke from his gut. He seemed to care about the outsider traveling to the Mississippi Delta where African Americans were literally going hungry, to Eastern Kentucky where people had been without jobs for years, and to the migrant labor camps in California.
He would heal a divided nation.
Every day after school that spring, my best friend Karen and I rode our Schwinn bicycles to the local Robert Kennedy for President headquarters where we volunteered. Located in an abandoned suburban storefront, I would spend my afternoons and weekends stuffing envelopes making phone calls and doing whatever grunt work was needed to help ensure that Bobby would be the 1968 Democratic candidate.
After a triumphant win in California ensuring his nomination in Chicago, tragedy struck and the dream vanished.
Friday-A Day Of Mourning
Long before my mother and I boarded the Long Island Railroad that Friday morning, the lines of mourners had already begun forming. By early morning when the St. Patrick’s Cathedral doors swung open, the line of mourners was already swelling to well over a hundred thousand waiting in the early morning humidity.
Simmering in the June heat, the crowded city streets were bustling with commerce as Mom and I made our way uptown to St Patrick’s from Penn Station.
New York, New York
I loved Manhattan with the noise and grime and glitz and especially the kaleidoscope of people.
Swinging down crowded Madison Avenue lined with skyscrapers and smart shops, girls rushed to their glitzy secretarial job to fetch coffee and type 60 words a minute on their IBM electric typewriters.
Liberated career girls on-the-go in-the-know-letting their now young looks show, with frosted pink lips and frosted hair, dressed in Bobbie Brooks groovy go togethers they were taking dictation by day, yeah yeah yeah, making the scene by night frugging the night away at their favorite discotheque.
Madison Avenue mod fashionistas glided like gazelles sporting their -Vidal Sassoon’s hard-edged geometry hairdos on their way to Conde Nast.
The real Mad Men of Madison Avenue fresh off the 7:37 from Greenwich were sprinting from Grand Central in giant strides , wrinkle-free and fresh in their summer weight Dacron suits to make their 9:00 meetings
By the time Mom and I arrived at St Patrick’s, the lines were strung out over 6 and 8 and 10 abreast over 25 blocks of mid-town Manhattan forming a vast chain of sadness.
The crush of people was overwhelming.
The vibrance of the crowd belied the sorrow that loomed over us all. It was a crazy crush of color happy Celanese separates, vibrant in sun corals, refreshing in turquoise, and electric in jubilee orange.
The sun was baking down and the crowds were wilting from the 90-degree heat but their no wilt, wrinkle-free clothes looked as fresh as the zingy floral prints, popping polka dots, and pastel paisleys that decorated them.
Making the Scene
Out of some deep sorrowing patience, they stood all day in a wilting sun and through a stifling night – an amalgam of populace from all walks of life.
Heartbroken housewives from Bayridge Brooklyn, a gaggle of amber waves of trouble-free Toni home permanents that had not unfurled in the humidity stood side by side with Park Avenue doyens fresh from their standing Friday hair appointment at Kenneth’s, that flawlessly tailored pet of the set who flocked to his posh paisley swathed townhouse at 19 East 54th Street.
Ladies who lunched, their red-rimmed sorrowful eyes hidden behind their Foster Grants who stopped by after a quick run through at Saks Fifth Avenue, shared space with teens with ravaged faces splotched with skin-colored Clearasil, teens with angry sunburns gotten the weekend before, on Memorial Day, teens, who like me had taken the day off from school.
Nuns, shrouded in black in their austere habits, their normally stern moral certitude shattered mindlessly fingered rosary beads, lined up next to weeping girls in mini skirts and Dynel wigs their Maybelline mascara running copiously down their cheeks.
Middle-aged men in sporty natty Lido telescope straw hats rubbed elbows with beefy construction workers in hard hats who stood solemnly next to peace kids in tied dye shirts and beads, hippies in pieced together outfits from second-hand stores, attic trunks, and funky shops.
Grief-stricken ex-GI’s and their Blue Cheer- whiter-than-white families living the second generation of American subdivision dream, stood shoulder to shoulder with Blacks from Bedford Stuyvesant, that God-forsaken urban blight of burned-out houses, forgotten by all except Robert Kennedy.
Reconciliation and Restoration
Hundreds of them came from Bed Sty, leaving the sour stench that permeated the Myrtle Willoughby IND subway station for the rarefied air of Fifth Avenue. To honor the man who had worked so hard for them.
Some were activists and community leaders from that beleaguered community second-generation victims of urban poverty, now mournfully reminiscing for anyone within earshot, of their brief encounters with Kennedy.
Some had been there that cold day in February 1966 accompanying RFK in his historic walking tour of Bedford Stuyvesant. Kennedy had seen it all, unvarnished, the burned-out buildings, the brownstones in abject decay, plaster falling from walls,,vacant lots teeming with garbage, the stripped cars rusting on the streets.
Now on line outside St. Patricks, one woman standing next to us resplendent in her Sunday best, wept openly as she recalled to Mom and me how only last June Senator Kennedy had been in Bed Sty, and she along with several hundred people had crowded into the courtyard of an abandoned milk bottling plant to listen to among others, Senator Kennedy speak.
The purpose of the gathering was the announcement of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first community development corporation that would try to regenerate Bed Sty. She would never forget that day or the warm handshake and sense of hope she received from Senator Kennedy. It was the first bit of hope for Bed Sty in decades.
“It’s hard keeping faith when everything’s going so bad,” she wailed repeatedly.
No, he had not forgotten them. They would never forget him.
For 6 hours we all stood and waited for a seconds glimpse of the coffin with the white wreath at the feet, the spray of roses at the head, the U.S. Flag, and the rosary on the burnished lid.
Some snapped cameras. Some touched the wood and crossed themselves.
Scores came out weeping.
Four hundred fainted. A stout black woman collapsed before the coffin sobbing. “Our friend is gone, oh Jesus he is gone, Jesus, Jesus.”
Members of the family appeared only briefly during the day- Ethel in black kneeling at the coffin and touching the flag, her eldest sons Joseph 15 and Robert Jr. 14 taking their turns in the honor guard, Teddy, pale alone into a fortieth-row pew.
It was mostly a day for the Bobby people – the young, the poor, the black, the disenfranchised. It was the day the family gave Robert Kennedy to the public for the last time.
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