Pastor and civil rights activist Rev. Robert S. Graetz died at the age of 92 on Sept. 20 at his home in Montgomery, Alabama. Graetz, who was a neighbor and friend of Rosa Parks, was the only white minister to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott, despite his pleas to his white colleagues.
“Today we honor the life and legacy of Rev. Robert Graetz. Thank you for your selfless acts of support and for fighting for a better future,” said a statement from the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University. “A friend and neighbor to Rosa Parks, Rev. Graetz regularly provided transportation to boycott participants and was questioned numerous times by police. The family faced harassment, tire slashings, and bombings because of their involvement in the boycott.”
Graetz was also the only white board member of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The MIA, whose president was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was founded in 1955 and coordinated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ran from Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 20, 1956.
Rev. Robert S. Graetz Fought for His Congregation’s Civil Rights
Robert S. Graetz was born on May 16, 1928, in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Capital University near Columbus, Ohio, and it was during that time that he first became aware of discrimination against African Americans. After he earned his B.D. from Evangelical Lutheran Theological Seminary, Lutheran church leaders sent Graetz to pastor Trinity Lutheran Church, an all-Black congregation in Montgomery, and instructed him not to “start any trouble.”
Graetz and his wife, Jean, moved to Montgomery in 1955, where they met two people who were to become key figures in the civil rights movement. One was Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other was Rosa Parks. “When we got into town, she was one of the first people outside of the congregation that we met,” Graetz told PBS correspondent Kim Lawton in a 2011 interview. “She was the adult advisor to the NAACP youth council, which met in our church, so we saw her regularly.”
As Graetz got to know the members of his church, he became familiar with the hardships they were experiencing because of institutional racism. “If you wanted to find one aspect of life here in Montgomery, and probably many other cities in the South, where people were really troubled about the way they were treated,” said Graetz, “it would be the buses. Everybody either experienced bad treatment on the buses or knew people who had been treated badly.”
Black activists, including the Women’s Political Council, had already been considering a boycott for some time, and at least two other women had been arrested for resisting bus segregation before Rosa Parks was. However, it was Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on Dec. 1, 1955, that ignited the 13-month boycott that led to the desegregation of Montgomery’s bus system.
Graetz told Lawton that he and his wife initially wrestled with whether or not to support the boycott:
The church officials knew that I had been involved in things like this, and they said, “We want you to go to Montgomery, but you have to promise not to start trouble,” and so the question was, would my taking part in the bus boycott be starting trouble? Jeannie and I prayed about that a lot and finally decided the only way that I could continue to be the pastor here was to take part in the activities that our members were taking part in, and from that point on we were totally a part of what was happening.
Once Graetz and his wife decided to give the movement their full support, they announced their decision to the members of their church. Said Graetz, “And I said, ‘I want you all to stay off the buses. I’ll be out in my car all day long. If you need a ride, I’ll be glad to come and take you wherever you need to go.’ So I spent the whole day just driving people around, picking people up on the street, whatever.”
An estimated 40,000 Black people ended up participating in the boycott, but still needed a way to get to work and to run errands, so one of the functions of the MIA was organizing a carpool service. Graetz helped with fundraising and by giving people rides to work or to the grocery store. In addition to serving as secretary for the MIA, the pastor exhorted other white ministers to join the boycott. He sent a letter asking them to “consider this matter prayerfully and carefully, with Christian love.” None responded.