EJI remembers the Rev. Robert Graetz, who died on Sunday at the age of 92, as a civil rights champion who supported racial justice despite threats to himself and his family.
The bus boycott began less than six months after Mr. Graetz became pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama, which had an all-Black congregation. Mr. Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, decided to support the boycott as soon as they learned that their friend and neighbor, Rosa Parks, had been arrested.
For three hours each morning, Mr. Graetz drove as many as 50 Black residents between home and work throughout the bus boycott, and he organized car pools and fundraisers for gas and car repairs. He joined the Montgomery Improvement Association and, unlike other white ministers in Montgomery, publicly supported the boycott effort, appearing with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the courthouse during the trial of boycott organizers.
That brought him to the attention of white supremacists. In August 1956, more than eight months into the bus boycott, Mr. Graetz’s home was bombed. The door was torn off and a window shattered, but Mr. Graetz and his family were out of town at the time. Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle accused the Montgomery Improvement Association of staging the bombing as a publicity stunt.
Mr. Graetz and his family—including their newborn baby—were sleeping inside the parsonage when another bomb exploded outside their home in January 1957, a month after the boycott ended successfully. A second larger bomb made of enough dynamite to kill the entire family was found shortly afterward. All-white juries acquitted the men arrested in the bombings.
“I have always contended that the absence of fear is not the point,” Mr. Graetz wrote in his 2006 memoir, A White Preacher’s Message on Race and Reconciliation: Based on His Experiences Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “What you do when you are afraid is what makes the difference. We often had good reason to be afraid.”
Mr. Graetz and his family persisted in supporting the desegregation movement in Montgomery despite harassment, terrorism, and death threats that extended to their preschool children, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. They received notes suggesting their children could be shot while they were playing outside. Vandals poured sugar in their gas tank, slashed their tires, and sprayed acid on their car. White students on segregated school buses shouted “n—r lover” at them.
Like Dr. King and hundreds of other civil rights activists who were targeted by police for arrests and harassment, Mr. Graetz was stopped by Montgomery County Sheriff Mac Sim Butler while driving boycott participants. At the county jail, he was told, “We like things the way they are here. We don’t want anybody trying to change them.”
Born on May 16, 1928, in West Virginia, Mr. Graetz attended Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, in the mid-1940s and helped organize a “race relations club” on campus. He earned a divinity degree from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, before pastoring at Trinity in Montgomery, where the church sponsored NAACP Youth Council meetings.
Mr. Graetz spent the next seven decades advocating for equality and social justice. In 2007, after many years in Columbus, Ohio, and elsewhere, he and his wife moved back to Montgomery, where they worked for Alabama State University and held civil rights symposiums.
EJI honored Robert and Jeannie Graetz in 2014 for their social justice and civil rights work. They were faithful and long-time supporters of EJI who regularly attended and assisted in our community events.
Mr. Graetz continued to speak out publicly against injustice even as he entered hospice care.
“What shall be done about the pockets of abject poverty scattered throughout our nation, disproportionately African-American?” he wrote for the Montgomery Advertiser in 2008. “Until progress has been made in ensuring more satisfying and productive lives to those who are the most vulnerable in our society, we cannot fully resolve the problems that divide our various groups.”