Americans remember Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train, 50 years later

Fifty years ago, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just moments after he won the California presidential primary. Shortly after his funeral at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, a train took his remains to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington D.C. where was buried next to his brother, John. Up to two million Americans interrupted their day to stand by the tracks and pay tribute to the man lying in the train's last car on its 225-mile journey.

John Anderson was a campaign aide for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and managed the guest list on the funeral train that day.

"I was asleep and my wife woke me up and said 'I think Bobby was shot,' But it's amazing, 50 years later, it's real," Anderson told "CBS This Morning" co-host John Dickerson. "I was struck by the size of the crowds….Every now and then there would be one or two people standing with a flag or sign, it was very emotional, still is."
 
Also aboard the train was photographer Paul Fusco. He captured the faces – black and white, male, female, young and old, staring into the train window.

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John Anderson

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John Malone, who was 20 at the time, stood along the tracks in New Jersey. 

"The sense was that you were at a wake. You were paying your respects, and just here to do that and stay quietly waiting for the train to come by," Malone said. "In one of the houses here I could hear a woman crying, and as the train came by she just called out, 'Oh Bobby, oh Bobby.'" 

When Bennett Levin was 28 years old, he watched the train pass in Philadelphia.

"We waited and we waited and we waited for what seemed to be an eternity," Levin said. "The bridge was lined three deep….There wasn't a spot to be had."

The kind of people in attendance? "Working people," Levin said.

"Everybody seemed to turn out… And the crowd even though the train was hours late stood there reverently waiting for the train. And, you know, that in itself said an awful lot for the esteem that the people held Robert Kennedy in," Levin said. 

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Michael Scott  

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Today, Levin owns the car that held the casket 50 yeas ago. 

During a year marked by racial unrest – from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to riots in the cities – 15-year-old Michael Scott went with his mother to watch the train pass through North East, Maryland. 

"In the last car I'm standing there and I see a lady with a veil. And she is sitting next to a casket that has a flag over it and it was like 'I wasn't ready for that.' I just expected to see the train and here I am looking at a lady with a veil, sitting next to a coffin that's carrying the hope of my family, black Americans," Scott said. "The fact that he was willing to stand up for people who look like me, people who weren't privileged, people who worked in harsh working conditions… that spoke to me as a young man. The train was carrying the remains of our last hope. And I think that was felt for everyone that was there."
 
Stephanie Lang watched the train in Baltimore when she was 24 years old. She went with her husband and her 2-year-old daughter.

"I was thinking about Ethel Kennedy, the grief that she was going through to lose a husband," Lang said. "When the train came through, that was the moment that I stopped and paid my respect and saw the train come by and I put my hand on my heart."

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Stephanie Lang

CBS News

"Do you think that people would walk to the edge of a train track for any public figure today?" Dickerson asked Lang. She doesn't think so. 
 
"I don't think we have the respect that we have today," she said. 
 
For John Anderson, the train ride was an "event that was the end of that adventure." 

"It was a little piece of American history that I had a very little piece of," Anderson said. "And it also gave me a lot of hope at that moment that there would be a better day." 

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has an exhibit of the funeral train on display through June 10. "The Train: RFK's Last Journey" looks at this historical event through three distinct works: Paul Fusco's photos, Rein Jelle Terpstra's project, "The People's View"  which shows photos and videos from people in the crowd, and a film reenactment of the train's journey by French artist Philippe Parreno. And for those on the East Coast, the International Center of Photography has an exhibit, "RFK Funeral Train: The People's View," on display through September 2.