Robert Graetz, Only White Pastor To Back Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dies At 92

Sep 22, 2020
Originally published on September 23, 2020 2:00 pm

The Lutheran church did not have many ordained African American ministers in 1955, so when a call went out that year for a new Lutheran pastor to serve a majority Black congregation in Montgomery, Ala., it was answered by a white clergyman in Ohio, the Rev. Robert Graetz.

Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, already had a record of church-based civil rights activism, and some Lutheran authorities worried that Graetz might become ensnarled in the developing racial unrest in Montgomery, where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor.

"He had to promise he would not start trouble," Jeannie Graetz recalled in a 2019 interview with NPR. "Well, he did not start the trouble. He just joined the trouble."

Graetz died in Montgomery on Sunday at the age of 92.

A few months after Graetz and his wife arrived in Montgomery, Rosa Parks and other local leaders, including King, launched a bus boycott to protest segregated seating in city buses. Graetz was acquainted with Parks, because the local NAACP youth council, which Parks directed, met in Graetz's church.

The call to boycott the bus system was problematic for many Black workers in Montgomery, because they depended on bus transportation to get to and from their jobs. Graetz immediately began organizing car pools to assist with their transportation needs and spent three hours each morning driving people to work in his own car.

In Montgomery in 1955, that was enough to make Graetz a target of the Ku Klux Klan. Twice, his house was firebombed. Neither he nor his wife nor their young children were injured, but a third bomb thrown at their house was enough to kill them all. Fortunately, it did not detonate.

Graetz and his wife also faced death threats, directed at them and their three children, one of them a toddler. FBI agents urged them to leave Montgomery, but they stayed, encouraged in large part by the support they received from their African American friends and neighbors.

"We felt that the Lord had put a circle of love around us," Jeannie Graetz said, "There were people who hated us, but that hate could not get through to us, because of the Lord's protection."

In that 2019 interview, Jeannie Graetz shared such stories at her husband's bedside. Suffering from Parkinson's disease, he was too ill to speak.

But in 2015, on the sixtieth anniversary of the bus boycott, Graetz was one of the speakers on a panel organized by NPR and member station WVAS. His message that day was that the struggle for racial justice in which he had participated was, at its base, a "spiritual" movement.

"It was the people of God putting into practice their understanding of what God meant for their lives to be like," Graetz said. "In Montgomery, it was black Christians teaching white Christians how to be Christian."

Graetz and his wife left Montgomery in 1958 and continued their social justice work in locations around the country. In 2007, they moved back to Montgomery. He is survived by his wife Jeannie and their seven children, along with numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A man who helped chauffeur people to work during the Montgomery bus boycott has died. Pastor Robert Graetz was the only white minister in Montgomery, Ala., to support that boycott, made famous by Rosa Parks. Graetz died Sunday. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, his support for racial justice made him a target of Ku Klux Klan violence.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In 1955, Robert Graetz, then a Lutheran pastor in Ohio, was sent to Montgomery to lead a Black Lutheran congregation there. At the time, the Lutheran Church was short on Black clergy. He arrived in Montgomery just a few months before Rosa Parks and other Black leaders launched a bus boycott there to protest racial segregation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEANNIE GRAETZ: He had to promise that he would not start trouble. Well, he didn't start the trouble. He just joined the trouble.

GJELTEN: That's his wife Jeannie. Graetz encouraged his Black congregants to join the bus boycott, and he promised to help them. Over the next year, he spent three hours each morning driving people to work in his own car so they could avoid the buses. In Alabama, that was enough to make him a target of racists. Twice, the Graetzes' house was bombed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

J GRAETZ: You hear this loud noise, and you know it was another bomb - glass and plaster just all over.

GJELTEN: A third bomb much larger than the first two was thrown at the house but did not detonate. Such was the violence facing anyone in those days who challenged the system of white supremacy. The Graetzes faced constant death threats, even against their preschool children. But they stayed. Speaking to NPR last year, Jeannie Graetz said they were protected by their African American friends and neighbors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

J GRAETZ: We felt that the Lord had put a circle of love around us because there were people that hated us, and that hate could not get through to us because of a large protection.

GJELTEN: In his final years, Robert Graetz was too ill to speak. His wife shared their story at his bedside. But back in 2015, Graetz spoke at an event organized by NPR and member station WVAS. He shared his view as a pastor of the racial justice movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT GRAETZ: It was the people of God putting into practice their understanding of what God meant for their lives to be like. And in Montgomery, it was Black Christians teaching white Christians how to be Christian.

GJELTEN: Graetz died at home in Montgomery at the age of 92. His wife Jeannie survives him.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE DIXON AND MICHAEL STEIN'S "FRIENDSHIP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.