Fifty years ago, Rich Rein, a tall, slender man who is now 71, was the editor of the Daily Princetonian student newspaper. On June 6, 1968, the day after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, he received a call from the Kennedy campaign office. Would he like to attend the funeral and ride on the train that would carry Bobby’s body from New York to Washington for burial? The newly widowed Ethel Kennedy had thought that college students should be among the journalists to report on the event. And so Rein ended up on one of the most extraordinary train journeys in history.
When the train slowly pulled out of Penn Station in Manhattan, the campaign team was still in shock and could not fully grasp that Kennedy was suddenly dead. Some joked and talked politics. Ethel, pregnant with her 11th child, shook hands and chatted with strangers.
But then, as the train moved south, the chitchat about politics stopped as the passengers realized something unusual was happening. “People were standing by the tracks, waiting for us,” says Rein. “Not only at the stations, but along the entire route, mile after mile. They had been standing and waiting in the hot sun for hours just to catch a glimpse of the train, to pay their respects.”
Today Rein (editorial director at Community News Service) has “a vague memory of Teddy Kennedy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Kennedy family lighting an eternal flame at Arlington. But my most vivid images are of people by the tracks of every color and race — praying nuns, people who held each other’s hands, holding ‘Goodbye, Bobby’ signs, and waving flags and handkerchiefs. I still remember a lonely Cub Scout in uniform who raised his hand in a salute as we passed him.”
The photographer Paul Fusco, who was on the train, took pictures all along the way, including at Princeton Junction, where 4,000 people had gathered, waiting for hours for the delayed train to arrive. Standing in the front of the crowd were women in floral dresses, boys in shorts, and a man in a pastel shirt and tie holding a Kennedy campaign poster. All of them seem to have gone there directly from doing their dishes, or eating lunch, or from a Little League baseball game.
Trains have always occupied a central place in the American imagination in songs like Casey Jones, Orange Blossom Special, and City of New Orleans. But these crowds along the tracks were not in a song, and their presence was not stage-managed for the media. It was a rare authentic, spontaneous event in American history, carried out unrehearsed by ordinary people, acting on their own initiative. The Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra captures their perspective in his current exhibit and book “RFK Funeral Train: The People’s View,” which collects the grainy snapshots and 8mm home movies taken of the train by the people on the ground.
“I am still surprised about everything that took place in that year,” Rich Rein says. But by September, 1968, at the beginning of the new academic year, there was little energy left and disillusionment had set in. The Daily Princetonian summarized the feeling of anticlimax after the turbulent year: “Prague is quiet, Chicago is quiet. Columbia is also calm. Martin Luther King is dead. Robert Kennedy is dead. The feeling of the past spring is dead. The students in the streets of NYC have overthrown Johnson. McCarthy and Kennedy seemed to have a chance to give a new direction to this country. New elan seemed to have originated in Czechoslovakia, France, New Hampshire, and Columbia. But that is over. Humphrey, Johnson, Nixon, Wallace, Daley — they live.”
The Princetonian concluded sadly, “Those who were in Princeton last spring and who were at the forefront of the demonstrations will keep busy building better bars and turning on the erotic lamps in their windowsills. Welcome home.”
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at email@example.com.