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    The Untold Story of the Robert Kennedy Funeral Train

    By John Lewis–

    It was 8 am on the morning of June 5, 1968. I was 9 years old and sat at the kitchen table in our house in Kansas City, eating my breakfast before going to school. When my dad returned home from taking my older brother to school, he told my mother and me the news that he had just heard on the car radio: Robert Kennedy had been shot in the wee hours of the morning after winning the California presidential primary the night before. We were shocked. At age 9, I was already a political geek, following the presidential primaries and convention delegate counts, like some children memorize train or airplane schedules.

    A few days later—on the evening of Saturday, June 8—I remember my dad making me my favorite food, a homemade chocolate milkshake with chocolate ice cream. Together, our family then watched on television Kennedy’s graveside service and burial, next to his brother at Arlington National Cemetery. The service had been delayed for hours because so many people had come to pay respects to Kennedy’s funeral train as it made its way from New York City to Washington, D.C.

    Sitting on the floor in my favorite bean bag chair, I remember holding the straw, but unable to sip my beloved milk shake because I was so moved by what I was watching. I held back tears.

    Last week, Stuart and I viewed a small but stunning new exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, called The Train: RFK’s Last Journey. The exhibition features photographs that a renowned photographer took from the train that bring to life the faces of the multitudes of people who came to view the funeral train on its trip. The exhibition also includes a new film reenactment of the view from the train, and actual film footage and photos that spectators took 50 years ago.

    While listening to a recent radio program about the exhibition, I learned something I had not known: two spectators had been killed during the train’s trek to Washington.

    I was taken aback. Two people lost their lives while paying their respects to the slain Kennedy. I didn’t know their names or their stories. And after they died, they had neither funeral trains where over a million people turned out to mourn their deaths, nor burials on national television. Yet their lives were just as important to them and their families as that of Robert Kennedy.

    I wanted to know who they were, and it took a bit of online searching to find out. They were Antoinette Severini and John Curia, both in their mid-50s and apparently a couple. They, like thousands of others, had come to the Elizabeth, New Jersey, train station to catch a glimpse of the funeral train. The crowd was so large that it spilled onto the nearby tracks.

    Unbeknownst to them, the regular train from Chicago to New York was heading north as the Kennedy train was making its way south. The northbound train blew its whistle, slowed and tried to stop, but it couldn’t do so in time. As onlookers rushed to get out of the way, Curia tried to pull Severini, who was holding her 3-yr-old grandchild in her arms, out of harm’s way. But as Severini hurled her grandchild to strangers on the platform, she and Curia were dragged to their deaths under the wheels of the train.

    Secret Service Agent Paul Levine, who witnessed the accident from the Kennedy train, described “shrieks of horror over screeching steel” and “the indescribable smell of death.” Those shrieks and smells had filled the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just three days before.

    When Robert Kennedy’s widow Ethel, herself pregnant at the time with the couple’s last child, learned the news, she reached out to the families of those injured or killed, sending a stuffed animal to Severino’s granddaughter while the young girl was recovering in the hospital.

    A few weeks ago, Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old African-American student, and her classmate Carter Anderson organized a walk-out from their elementary school to honor those shot and killed in Parkland, Florida—and to honor Courtlin Arrington, an African American girl who was shot and killed March 7 at her high school in Alabama. Wadler gave an unforgettable speech at the March for Our Lives on the mall in Washington in which she proclaimed:

    “I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential … . I urge everyone here, and everyone who hears my voice, to join me in telling the stories that aren’t told.”

    Robert Kennedy would be 92 today if he had not been shot to death by a .22 caliber revolver. Antoinette Severini and John Curia would not have been killed in the train crash had Kennedy not lost his life to an assassin’s bullet.

    I remember becoming choked up 50 years ago, not by the “what ifs” of the political implications of Kennedy’s untimely death, but by the human tragedy of a family losing two sons to gun violence in less than 5 years. I believe Robert Kennedy would have embraced Naomi Wadler’s call to action. In the words of Bobby’s famous older brother, “the torch has been passed to a new generation”—or rather, Wadler and her fellow activists have grabbed the torch and will not let go until we all cross the finish line of ending the scourge of gun violence.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.