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‘A legendary ally’: Robert Graetz, white pastor who helped organize Montgomery bus boycott, dies

‘A legendary ally’: Robert Graetz, white pastor who helped organize Montgomery bus boycott, dies

Robert Graetz, a white Lutheran pastor who was involved in the 1950s Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, is interviewed by Biography in 2014. | YouTube/Biography

Robert Graetz, a white Lutheran pastor active in the civil rights movement who helped to organize the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, passed away at age 92.

Graetz died Sunday at his home in Montgomery following a battle with Parkinson’s Disease, according to his wife, Jeannie Ellis Graetz, as reported by The Washington Post.

A native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, Graetz moved to Montgomery in 1955 to become lead pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, a predominantly African-American congregation.

Graetz supported the bus boycott, aimed at pressuring the city to integrate their public transportation system, by spending hours each day driving blacks to work or school.

His involvement in the boycott was met with resistance, which at times was violent, explained the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

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“After articles about his involvement appeared in local newspapers, sugar was poured in his car’s gasoline tank, and he received many threatening phone calls,” noted the Institute.

“On 25 August 1956, while he and his family were at Highlander Folk School for a workshop with Rosa Parks, his house was bombed … After Graetz’s home was bombed again in January 1957, he left Montgomery to become pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio.”

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In an interview with PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly in 2011, Graetz recalled the concerns he and his wife had for their children during his time in Montgomery.

“People would call us up and say, ‘I see your children out in the yard there. Are you sure they’re OK out there?’” he recalled at the time.  

“It was OK for Jeannie and me to put our lives in danger, but did we have the right to put our children through that? And we finally decided that we couldn’t control that — that God had brought us here, the children were in God’s hands, and if God wanted them to be protected, that would be His job.”

In the 1990s, Graetz became involved in the gay rights movement at the encouragement of one of his children, Robert S. Graetz III, who later died after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1991.

Graetz is survived by his wife of over 65 years, Jean Ellis Graetz, a sister, six children, 26 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandson.

Many paid their respects to the late pastor online, including the official Facebook page of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“The Reverend Robert Graetz entered the church triumphant today. He was a life long fighter for justice. May he Rest In Peace and rise in glory. Peace be to his memory,” they stated.

Alan Cross, an outspoken Southern Baptist pastor and writer, took to Twitter to pay respects to Graetz, labeling him an “American and Christian hero.”

“I knew him, visited with him, and he spoke in my church,” tweeted Cross on Sunday. “Graetz was only white minister to stand with Rosa Parks and Montgomery Bus Boycotters. His house was bombed twice and he and his wife, Jeannie, were constantly harassed.

“We have no idea what persecution looks like. This was mid-50s Montgomery and this was state-sponsored terrorism.”

Florida lawyer Ben Crump, known for his civil rights litigation, posted a statement to Facebook on Monday, labeling Graetz “a legendary ally” to the African-American community.

“He responded to harassment and threats by standing firm against hate. The change we have today would not have been possible without him. You will be missed, Rev. Graetz,” stated Crump. 

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