A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties

A Time It Was

By Bill Eppridge
(Copyright © 2008 Bill Eppridge)

Life got me a special New York City police credential for inside access to St. Patrick's Cathedral and the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy. I couldn't comprehend the enormous impact his death had on the people of New York. I had seen the huge crowds on the campaign, and also here in 1966, but I did not expect New Yorkers to react in this way. I think that when he left us, we lost hope, and I don't think it ever came back.

The evening before the funeral mass, I saw people standing in line on the sidewalks a few blocks from St. Patrick's on Fifth Avenue. As I got closer, I realized these people were lined up to get into the church, all kinds of people, and they stayed until 5 a.m. when the church closed. His casket was inside, and the people of New York wanted to pay their respects.

From where I stood, I had a clear view from the front of the church to the back of the church. I set up the long lens and waited. In between shooting, I was crying.

I don't remember hearing Ted Kennedy's eulogy— I was using my eyes, and sound became inconsequential. My job was to see, not to hear. I was seeing the widows of Bobby, Martin, and John.

I was an invited guest on the funeral train. I went between two cars and hung out there. A window to the outside was open, and I could lean out, and shoot. If I happened to be crying, the wind from the train would dry up the tears.

As soon as we hit New Jersey, suddenly there were people alongside the tracks and that scene was the same the entire way to Washington, D.C. Crowds lined the tracks the entire length of that trip. That was the only thing I photographed while on the train.

The people lining the tracks were a cross-section of America—everybody you could imagine. You could see wealth, you could see poverty, old, young, women, men, black, white. I just remember the grief, and the sadness on everyone's face. It was an unbelievable scene.

The train arrived very late into Washington, after dark. It had been delayed almost five hours, and the arrival time was shortly after 9 p.m. Up the hillside in Arlington Cemetery, light shone on the Custis-Lee Mansion, and directly below that was the lighted gravesite, the final resting place of Robert F. Kennedy.

When we finally arrived at the burial site, military guards handed out several thousand candles, but I didn't take one. I thought I might be shooting, but when I looked at the scene, I realized that Life had other photographers there. I decided I wasn't going to shoot this, and I found a place to stand and just watch. I went behind a tree, and standing there was the NBC cameraman Stu Ruby who had been on the campaign all along. He was holding his camera face down. I said, "Stu, your producer is looking all over for you." Stu said, "I know, screw him. I'm not shooting this."

He handed me a candle and lit it. We both stood there holding them, and watched as the campaign finally ended.