Shoulder to Shoulder, They Started Singing

June 05, 1995|By J. PETER SABONIS

Whenever I pass Pennsylvania Station I find myself peering at a section of railroad tracks that bends at the northeast corner of the station. If I'm not in a hurry, I'll stop and stare at it and suddenly I'm transported back in time -- 27 years to this very week.

I'm looking at the same corner, but I'm 10 years old and sitting in front of a television in a D.C. suburb. Baltimore is just a place where Brooks and Frank Robinson live. But all that is about to change. Baltimore and its railroad tracks are also about to become a part of my understanding of who Robert Kennedy was.

The network television cameras were directed toward that northeast bend on that sultry Saturday, repeating the waiting game that had been played out in dozens of railroad stations from New York to Washington. The crowds right from the start were larger than expected. An accident in New Jersey caused a delay, and when Robert Kennedy's funeral train began again, it crawled down the east coast, and was soon hours behind schedule. In Trenton, Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, the cameras caught each crowd in turn, peering northward, waiting.

In Baltimore, they waited as well. But there something happened that will stay with me forever. As the day listed toward sunset, the cameras caught hundreds of solemn-faced, grief-stricken adults, shoulder to shoulder in the shadows of the Penn station platform, the scene made darker by the color of their skin. The picture was haunting. All these adults, standing so still, so serious.

And then I heard it. The singing. Spontaneous singing. It was the ''Battle Hymn of the Republic.'' And it was sung not with the fiery enthusiasm of some scholarly white-robed choir, nor was it a dirge. It was simply other-worldly. To a 10-year-old it was confusing. I had seen sadness and grief on television all day, and had expected it. But here was something different. Adults singing, on their own, with no songbooks or choir director or anything. I knew something special was happening, but I didn't understand it.

Had I seen it with my adult eyes, I might have sensed the uniqueness of it in political terms. Bobby's working-class white constituency had lined the tracks in Delaware, and now, here in Baltimore, Bobby's black constituency had come to sing farewell. That political marriage was no small feat. As Jack Newfield, a biographer of Kennedy, wrote in 1988: ''No one came after him who could simultaneously speak for the unemployed black teen-ager and the white worker trapped in a dead-end job and feeling misunderstood.''

That Kennedy came to be such a unifying figure is remarkable, and in sharp contrast to the candidates of today who exploit our differences for political gain. For RFK was born affluent and was raised with all the accompanying accouterments. He and his brother rolled into Washington in 1960 with an arrogance and self-righteousness that bespoke not simply their youth, but their privilege as well. Three years later, in eleven Zapruder seconds, Bobby was reduced, as Jimmy Hoffa would say at the time, to ''just another lawyer.''

I used to hear Rose Kennedy, the family matriarch, compared frequently to the biblical figure Job, because she lived through all the Kennedy tragedies and persevered. I used to think the comparison was apt, until I read Job and realized it is not simply a story about suffering and perseverance. It is the story of how suffering can change one's perspective of self, of justice, of God.

With President Kennedy's death, it seems to me that it was Robert Kennedy who entered the world of the biblical Job. In one moment he had been stripped, like Job, of his power, his privilege and his purpose. And as with Job, his suffering caused first a critical examination of self.

The Robert Kennedy who re-emerged on the national stage in 1968 was a markedly different person from the one who left it in 1963. As Newfield wrote about him in 1968, ''Robert Kennedy was materially transformed by direct human experience. . . . [He] was capable of real change because he could admit error -- to himself, and to the rest of us. He admitted he was wrong about Vietnam. He admitted he was wrong about McCarthyism in the 1950s. He admitted he was slow to realize the historical validity and importance of the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s when he was attorney general. But he didn't just recognize his mistake about civil rights, he became the white political leader most committed to black equality and dignity.''

And just as Job's own suffering led him to reflect on the sufferings of others -- the poor and the innocent -- and to understand that real belief in God entails solidarity with the poor, Robert Kennedy took up the cause of the dispossessed. ''His own experience of the waste and cruelty of life gave him access to the sufferings of others,'' wrote biographer and friend, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. ''He appeared most surely himself among those whom life had left out.''

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