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50 Years After His Death, Making RFK More Than A Ghost And A Mural

Murals surround the complex of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles.

In the early hours of June 5, 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a kitchen hallway of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Kennedy was a top Democratic contender. He had just given a rousing victory speech after winning the California presidential primary. He died the following day.

Today, the hotel is gone. But in its place is a kind of living memorial to his ethos of social justice and fairness to everything from immigration to the environment.

Where the Ambassador Hotel and its famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub once stood, the Koreatown neighborhood site is now home to six public schools.

This 20 acre patch of real estate easily could have become just like the high-end condos and office buildings sprouting all around it.

But a handful of advocates fought for a development that would help the surrounding under-served neighborhoods.

"Many of the students were being bused all over the city and there was not an opportunity for them to go to a neighborhood school," says RFK High School of the Arts Principal Susan Canjura, standing beneath a colorful mural of Kennedy breaking bread with labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.

It mirrors a second mural at the library's opposite end, both by Los Angeles artist Judy Baca, which depicts Kennedy campaigning as a sea of hands, black and white, reach toward him, toward the sky and the stars.

The very spot Sen. Kennedy lay bleeding, cradled by a teenage bus boy named Juan Romero is now a state-of-the-art library.

"Part of the library does include the area where Kennedy was shot, the kitchen. And it's now behind the librarian's desk," Canjura says.

The six public schools here, kindergarten through 12th grade, want to show that Kennedy means more than just a name on the buildings.

"We try not to fall into that rut," she says. "I think seeing his picture every day on the mural and thinking about what he means and putting that into our curriculum, too, it's something that I think really lives in the school."

Students read at two red marble-topped wooden tables, the only physical remnants of the old Ambassador Hotel.

On a recent visit, students in the courtyard work on year-end art projects beneath a giant mural of Kennedy with the quote: "Those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe."

The funeral train An older generation, too, especially those who lived through Robert Kennedy's death, are still wrestling with his legacy and relevance for today's America.

"Someplace I read one never really knows the value of a moment until it becomes a memory," says Michael Scott, who turns 65 this week. "John Coltrane talks about it — 'cleaning the mirror;' being able to look closer, more pivotally into your soul."

Scott had just turned 15 five decades ago when he heard that the train carrying Kennedy's body would pass near his small town of North East, Md., near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a hot, humid June afternoon when he looked at his mother working in the kitchen of their home.

"I remember she had her apron on," Scott says. "She was preparing a meal. And I said 'Mom I'd like to go see the train.'"

For the teenager, going to see the funeral train was, partly, just something to do on a hot afternoon.

But there was more: Scott's father was a local civil rights leader and head of the area NAACP. His parents had great affection for a man who, during his short career, tried to unite black, white and brown people. Scott says the family believed Kennedy seemed to really listen; to empathize.

"He seemed like a decent man. He wasn't one for posturing. He wasn't big and blustery," he says, adding that he still tears up when he hears Kennedy's speech the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Kennedy stood before a group of crestfallen and angry African-Americans in Indianapolis and called for unity.

"What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness," Kennedy told the crowd, "but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."

"There was something beautiful about him just being truthful, which is lacking today. It's not a fashionable concept to appear vulnerable or to appear authentic," Scott says. "Here's a man who refrained from using the word 'I' a lot. It wasn't about I, was not about me. It was about us. We. That, to me, is lacking today."

Scott and his mom were among the estimated 1 million Americans, regardless of color or ethnicity, who lined stretches of train track from New York to Washington, D.C. to Kennedy's burial journey to Arlington National Cemetery. The spontaneous mourners paying a last respect, one writer said, marked a "long sad human chain" of mourning.

People held homemade signs. Some simply stood in silence. Scott recalls looking at the slight bend in the track as the train came into view. "I remember seeing the train moving mournfully slow. I'll never forget that."

In the last car there was a large window. Scott caught sight of the mahogany coffin.

"And I'm standing here. And as it goes by I see a lady with a veil sitting next to a casket that has a flag draped over it. I'm like, 'oh, that's Ethel Kennedy.' And she is sitting next to a coffin. The casket that's literally carrying the last hope, which has been slain. I didn't expect to see that."

He didn't expect to see the man "I thought was David" trying to slay the Goliaths of racism, poverty and war mongering, he says.

Scott would later realize that was his 'cleaning the mirror' moment.

As the train passed, many felt like hope and justice had been knocked down in an America already rocked by assassinations, the escalating war in Vietnam and urban uprisings at home.

"I was kind of in a blur, you know. It's like losing a close member of the family" says Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman, who knew RFK and worked as one of his legislative aides in the Senate from 1964 until the end.

Edelman attended the funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and rode the funeral train down to Washington.

"There were people of every race every background who maybe just out of respect to wave goodbye. But it was much more than that" he says. "You have a feeling in a personal way of immense infinite loss."

Edelman says the sense of loss was especially hard for those who felt marginalized. "Particularly people of color, people who were farm workers. Young people. Their loss, if anything, was even more terrible," Edelman says.

"As we went clickety clack down the tracks, mile by mile, seeing people in the thousands, told us what an enormous loss that was and also what a broad support there was for him."

A show at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art captures the extraordinary power and resonance of that funeral train. "The Train: RFK's Last Journey" chronicles through three distinct artistic lenses what some have said may have been one of the last times America felt truly united.

Some of Scott's memories are part of one section called The People's View. Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra crowd-sourced and curated photographs and home movies made by the spectators themselves.

Scott came in a few days after the show opened to take it all in again.

"And as I sat down there was a lady who came up in a wheelchair with her husband standing behind her. And I motioned for them to put headphones on," to hear the sounds and interviews.

They did. And the three of them watched and listened in silence.

"At the conclusion we took off our headphones and I was wiping tears. And so were they. The gentleman, her husband, looked at me and said, 'You know, it's been 50 years. And it still hurts.' These are strangers but we are connected reflecting back on grief, reflecting back on a hope that was literally pulled out from under us."

Teaching RFK

Teachers, parents and those who lived through it know it's a challenge making that history and Kennedy's larger life relevant for today's teenagers.

"I pray that there's something that they (students today) can glean from his legacy of fundamental decency, a sense of justice," Scott says.

RFK High School of the Arts teacher Elizabeth Mora says Donald Trump's presidency and the growing divide in the country has proven to be one large teachable moment.

She says she tries "to help them understand that these are fights that people have been fighting a very long time." Mora has taught cultural geography and Advanced Placement government at the L.A. school for more than a decade.

We're talking in the school's courtyard near a giant mural some 60 feet tall of a current student, a Mexican immigrant, with the words "I see you. I am you. We are one."

Yet the current political climate and White House policies have proved to be challenging for many of her students, a majority of whom are Latino. Many are rattled, she says, about the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration; the practice of separating immigrant parents and children at the border; and the way the president sometimes talks about women and people of color.

"I had a student — still like chokes me up," she says, her voice cracking. "She was just like 'everything that he says was an attack on a different part of my identity,' you know."

It's exactly that kind of challenge grounded in today that Mora loves about teaching here: to make Robert Kennedy spring back in spirit, to make him more than a ghost and a mural, "to kind of help our students find the agency in themselves to continue fighting for what they want in their communities: Equity. Social justice. Health," Mora says, to help her students "to turn it into a society that we want."
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org/.