Born on May 16, 1928, in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Robert Graetz became a pastor who served the African-American congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama. With the advent of the historical citywide bus boycotts, Graetz supported his congregants and engaged in activism himself despite threats to him and his family. He's continued his human rights work and penned a memoir.
Background and Education
Robert S. Graetz Jr. was born on May 16, 1928, in Clarksburg, West Virginia. His German grandfather was an ardent Lutheran who, upon seeing that his own son had chosen a career in chemical engineering, prepped his grandson for a life in the ministry. Graetz went on to attend Capital University in Ohio, focusing on pre-theological studies, and later graduated from Trinity Lutheran Seminary. He also served as a student pastor at Los Angeles' Community Lutheran Church.
Graetz married his wife, Jeannie, in 1951, with the couple remaining together for decades and going on to have seven children.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Upon his graduation from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Robert Graetz was asked by church officials to become pastor at the predominantly African-American Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Thus Graetz was the white minister of a black congregation in 1955, during the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He decided that the right thing to do was to actively and openly support congregants and the cause for which they mobilized.
The protest was started by the African-American community after Rosa Parks, a neighbor of Graetz's, chose not to give up her seat to white passengers on a bus, for which she was arrested. After coordination with civil rights activist E.D. Nixon of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the boycott was initiated on the day of Parks's trial—December 5, 1955—and lasted until December 20 of the following year.
The boycott was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a young pastor who worked in conjunction with fellow minister Ralph D. Abernathy to form the Montgomery Improvement Association, with Graetz joining its executive committee.
With a high degree of volunteer coordination needed to make the protest successful, Graetz also helped by providing car transportation to protesters when he could, coming to believe in King's concept of a "beloved community."
Yet he, Jeannie and their children were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan for his involvement in African-American civil rights, with his car booby-trapped and his church residence bombed multiple times. (It is believed that one bomb, which didn't go off, would have killed the Graetz family and leveled much of the block.) Graetz at one point felt that he would not live to see through the attacks, yet he and his wife got through via prayer, song and support from their church community.
The boycott ended successfully with the integration of Montgomery's bus lines, and Graetz continued his pastoring duties and civil rights work. He later served various church communities in Ohio and Washington, D.C. During the early 2000s, he and his wife also worked with the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture.
Graetz published a revamped version of his memoir in 2006, A White Preacher's Message on Race and Reconciliation, which includes the minister's thoughts on a number of contemporary human rights issues.
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