In My Words: ​50 years later, Robert Kennedy’s funeral still unforgettable

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Tom Nelson, associate professor of communications, writes about the impact of Robert Kennedy's funeral on him as a teenager in New York 50 years ago. 

This column was distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate and was published in the Greensboro News & RecordThe Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Virginia), the Raleigh News & Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun. Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University. 

By Tom Nelson
Albert Einstein told us time is relative. That certainly seems true when I consider that it is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The morning of June 6 marks his death in 1968. It feels like yesterday. 
So many years have gone by that I cannot presume younger people are even aware that there was a Robert Kennedy, that everyone called him Bobby not Robert and that he was the brother of President John Kennedy.

It is an honest assessment to say Bobby Kennedy is a minor figure in American history probably to be forgotten after I and others from his period are long dead. But we are not dead yet. And we remember, especially this week.  

Bobby Kennedy was running for president of the United States when he was killed by an assassin. The moment and the dreadful aftermath were filmed so all can now feel as if they were there. 

Some of us don’t need the film. We were there.

I am one of them.
I was 14 years old at the time and like many young people from that period, I was raised Kennedy. John Kennedy in my childhood then Bobby Kennedy in my teenage years were larger-than-life figures. The Kennedys are in the blood of any American youngster of that time.  We are bound by the DNA of national experience. Love them or hate them; we are one with them.

I loved them.

Bobby Kennedy’s death arguable changed American history. Had he not been killed in 1968 and had he managed to win the presidential election later that year, so many things might have been different. The speculation on what those differences would have been continues to this day.

But this is not about what would have been. It is about what was — the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. 

As history would have it, Bobby Kennedy’s funeral was held in my hometown of New York. Be reminded that Kennedy was a senator from New York so political protocol demanded it. Kennedy was also a Roman Catholic so religious protocol demanded the rites of his Church. The two demands were handily met in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan where politicians and clergy came together to say goodbye to Bobby Kennedy.

Some of the public was also invited. I was among them.

Even by invitation, there were thousands of us on that day.  

My memory is of a long but a congenial wait kept in line by police barricades that stretched for blocks and blocks through midtown Manhattan. It was disgustingly hot that day in the way that only New York can be disgustingly hot. But there was a real spirit of brotherhood while we stood on line despite the wait, the heat and the crush.

I was the youngest of the people near me and after an hour or so of waiting I asked someone to save my place on line while I found a deli to buy soda and water, not just for me, but for a group of us. The deal was sealed and away I went. 

I found a deli, told the counter guy about my mission, and put in my order. The guy would not take money for any of it, saying it was his way of doing something that day.  Even now, I get a tad emotional when I think about him.

I honestly think that I have never felt more American than that day. It was a sense that we had been drawn together by some sort of national gravity, gravity that eventually drew us into Saint Patrick’s where Kennedy’s body lay in state under the American flag. 

I touched our flag that day, the stars as I remember, and filed past Kennedy’s casket.  But then I did something I was not supposed to do. I did not file out of the cathedral with my group. I ditched into a pew.

There I sat for a few hours watching the famous and the unknown come and go. I was right up front by the East 50 Street entrance, close enough to watch but far enough to not make myself too interesting. 

I did not then nor now dismiss myself as a voyeur. I was a young teenager with a keen sense of American history and of grief.

That’s why I am telling you this story. I want you to know Robert Kennedy’s funeral not through film but through the words of someone who was there. And someone who has not forgotten any of it. 

Even 50 years later.