May 16, 1928 to September 20, 2020
As the white minister of an African American congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, Graetz’s home was bombed several times and he was harassed by white residents for his participation in the Montgomery bus boycott. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memoir of the boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, King recalled that Graetz served to remind those who were boycotting that “many white people as well as Negroes were applying the ‘love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself’ teachings of Christianity in their daily lives” (King, 74).
Born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1928, Graetz graduated from Capital University in 1950. He received his BD from Evangelical Lutheran Theological Seminary just before arriving in Montgomery in 1955 to become pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. After the boycott began, Graetz sent a letter to white ministers in Montgomery explaining the protest’s objectives and asking them to “consider this matter prayerfully and carefully, with Christian love” (Graetz, 7 December 1955). Graetz, a member of the executive board of the Montgomery Improvement Association, participated in the boycott carpool, driving African Americans to work or shopping for several hours each day. 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. On 25 August 1956, while he and his family were at Highlander Folk School for a workshop with Rosa Parks, his house was bombed.
At the 14 November 1956 mass meeting held to celebrate the Browder v. Gayle ruling by the Supreme Court outlawing segregation on the city buses, Ralph Abernathy asked Graetz to read from scripture. King recalled that more than 8,000 people crowded into two churches that night, and when Graetz read the biblical passage, “‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,’ the congregation burst into applause … they knew they had come of age, had won new dignity” (King, 161).
After Graetz’s home was bombed again in January 1957, he left Montgomery to become pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio. He remained active in civil rights issues, operating a street ministry in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, and then advocating in support of gay rights.
Graetz, Montgomery, 1991.
Graetz to Christian Brothers, 7 December 1955, RGP.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.