At RFK’s grave in Arlington with Jackie Kennedy – 50 years ago

 

Kennedys at RF Kennedy grave 1968

Like many Americans in 1968, the most newsworthy events played out each day on my television. Whether it was the Vietnam war, the protests, or the presidential election, each night my TV linked me to the wider world.

On March 31, 1968, as I viewed a speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson, he suddenly said: “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of this country.” My reaction was what did he just say? Then he added, “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” The thought that LBJ, probably the most political president in memory, would not run again was stunning.

With Johnson’s withdrawal from the1968 race, Senator Robert F. Kennedy became the leading democratic candidate. Then, on June 6, 1968 Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. Within five years the nation had reeled from deaths of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and now another assassination filled our TV screens. As the story unfolded on the nightly news, RFK’s body would be flown back to New York for a funeral on June 8. Then it would be taken to Washington by train for burial in Arlington, near his brother’s grave.

I went down to Union Station to be there went the train arrived. It was dark and late on a Saturday night and I climbed up on a wall near the station to see the limousines, hearse, and ever-present media move through the darkened city on the way to Arlington. I still remember the long line of dark cars moving away on Constitution Avenue toward Virginia on that warm June night. It was a very somber event, and markedly different than the reaction to the earlier death of Dr. King in April that year. Then the city exploded, now the mood was one of almost defeated sadness. Sadness that once again a life had been taken, sadness for our country and sadness for a year that seemed to be out of control.

On Sunday June 9, 1968, I decided to go to Arlington to visit the Kennedy graves. Despite all the recent events of the previous days, the area around the graves was deserted. I climbed the hill to JFK’s grave and saw the freshly-dug grave of Robert Kennedy nearby on the left of the main plaza area. After a few moments, I turned to leave. To my surprise there were Jacqueline Kennedy, John Jr., and Caroline. I didn’t know what to think: the Kennedy family was coming up the hill to JFK’s grave. When they reached their father’s grave, the children knelt down, and prayed.

Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s grave 1968

At Robert’s grave, Jackie placed a single white rose. She turned and passed very close to me, I stood there transfixed by something so unexpected that had happened. And then as quickly as they came, they were gone.

Yes, there were many stories in 1968, but not all of them played out on the nightly news. It was this special moment of that troubled year, I will always remember and cherish.

 

 

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Version of this story appeared in the Finger Lakes Times as an Op Ed piece on Sunday June 3,  2018.

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Washington DC and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to At RFK’s grave in Arlington with Jackie Kennedy – 50 years ago

  1. Barb Hynek (Norvell) says:

    Thank you for sharing this memory. America lost so much when Robert Kennedy as killed. This anniversary is a jarring reminder of what a compassionate and thoughtful leader should look like.

  2. Carole Jensen says:

    Recently I was talking to my daughter about the 1950s and 1960s. She had the perception, as most of my students have had, that those 20 years were just delightful. I quoted Charles Dickiens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Perhaps we can say that about every decade.
    Carole

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