June 8, 1968, is a day I will never forget. On that day I made a spur-of-the moment decision to go to a gravesite service 600 miles from home.
The early morning sky was blue and inviting. My mother, Clyde Kennedy, had spent the night with us. She and I got my two children and my sister’s youngest son fed, dressed and in the car by 7:30 a.m. My youngest daughter, Amy, was barely 3 years old and her brother, Reed, was 7. Mike, my sister’s son, was 5. (Our Robie had not yet been born.) Our suitcases, bags of crackers, cookies and fresh fruit along with a cooler containing juices and soft drinks also were in the car.
My husband came to the car window telling us to be careful, and we hit the road.
We were going to Myrtle Beach for a long-planned vacation. I was the only one in the car who could drive, and although Mom had never driven a car, she had a wonderful head for reading maps and finding the best routes. There was no such thing as a handheld Global Positioning System; interstate highways were unfinished and it would be many years before we knew about best routes provided by the American Automobile Association.
Soon I clicked on the radio for a little music, but we only heard a male voice describing Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral Mass in Boston. We had tried to think only of our beach trip, but the broadcast instantly reminded us of our sadness. We had been fans of President Kennedy and his ideals. We had been shocked and saddened by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. before Bobby Kennedy revived our hope for a smooth society respectful of all persons.
The fact that Kennedy also was our family name was incidental. My parents had always pounded the following words into our heads and hearts: "God loves all people and has no favorites." When I was about 12 years old, I became amazed by all the black people I saw on a visit to Macon. Growing up in Clarkesville, I saw very few black people. I stuck my head out our car window and called to a little Negro child on a Macon sidewalk, "Hey, little chocolate drop." Dad hit the brakes so fast that my head slammed against the door frame. "Don’t ever hurt another person with name-calling," he said sternly.
Years later, the Kennedy brothers and MLK had basically spoken the same message of acceptance, and all three had been assassinated. We began to feel hopeless about a problem we couldn’t understand.
Now we were on our way north and the train carrying Bobby Kennedy’s body was on its way south. I turned to Mom who was listening intently to the radio and said, "Let’s go to the gravesite ceremony." I didn’t have to explain further because she said, "I was thinking the same thing."
She spread the big paper map in her lap and began to select the best route to Washington, D.C., instead of Myrtle Beach. Little Amy was standing lodged behind my right shoulder because we had never even heard of a car seat for children. Amy already was tired of riding and tried to express her own opinion about extending our travel. "I don’t want to go to washing machine," she said emphatically, giving us something to chuckle about.
We kept the radio on stations talking about Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train and kept driving north. We stopped only for gas and the restroom. If we could get to Washington that day and the graveside services were held the next morning, we could be there. We arrived in Washington about the same time the train did, and all our children were asleep. The graveside services were held that night about 10 o’clock while we were searching for a hotel with a vacancy. We finally found a room in Virginia.
Early the next morning, we got a city map to find our way to the gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.
Coincidentally, the "Poor People’s Campaign" was under way at the same time. Thousands of people were in Washington lobbying for the "Economic Bill of Rights." They were camped on every inch of green space around the Capitol. They lived in tents and cardboard boxes and hung their rain-wet clothing in the sun to dry. We saw that the poor people’s faces were black, white, brown and red.
When I think of these poor people, I always remember being present in a white woman’s kitchen when she paid a black woman for doing a morning’s housework. The white woman paid the black woman with a jar of her left-over bacon grease. The white woman probably had seen her mother do the same, but I was horrified. The black woman received no money but said thank you before she walked out the back door. The scene became indelibly printed in my mind, but the fight for an Economic Bill of Rights is another story.
Finally we found the cemetery and could actually see a handful of visitors at the gravesite. We hurriedly located a parking place and walked the long distance to the grave.
Fresh flowers of all kinds, not wreaths or sprays but single flowers left by individuals, covered the grave. Mother and I stood silent in our sadness and the children didn’t say a word. Each of us wished we had a flower to add to the grave.
For us, it was more than a man buried there. We feared that his death meant that all people — red and yellow, black and white — always would be judged only by their skin color. At this time I did not realize that women were denied opportunity simply because we were female. Also, I didn’t recognize how long it takes for a democratic republic such as ours to make a significant change.
Many times I have reminded myself of Bobby Kennedy’s words: "Each time a man ... acts to improve the lot of others, ... he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope ..." Today I am thankful that I have lived long enough to see a woman and a black man fight it out to see who could become the presidential nominee of a major political party. I think Bobby Kennedy is among all those with smiling faces in heaven.
Alma Bowen is a former editor of The Times.