Graetz speaks with King and Ralph Abernathy in May 1957 during the trial for the bombings of Graetz’s home as well as Abernathy’s church and home. Photograph by the Associated Press.
Reverend Robert S. Graetz, the only white clergyman to support the Montgomery bus boycott, has died at the age of 92 at his home in Montgomery, Alabama.
Born in West Virginia in 1928, Graetz first became involved in the fight for racial justice as a student at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, where he began a race relations group on campus and joined the local chapter of the NAACP. After graduating from Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in 1955, Graetz was assigned to pastor the African-American Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery. Graetz and his wife Jeannie had been in Montgomery for less than six months when the Montgomery bus boycott began, but after Rosa Park’s arrest, he urged his parishioners not to ride the buses during his Sunday sermon and soon became an executive board member of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Graetz drove people to and from work and errands for several hours a day in support of the boycott, and he also wrote to other white ministers in Montgomery, asking them to support the movement and imploring them to “consider this matter prayerfully and carefully, with Christian love.” In a December 1956 article published in Liberation magazine, King stated that Graetz’s work with MIA served as “a constant reminder to us in these trying months that white people as well as colored people are trying to expand their horizons and work out the day-to-day applications of Christianity.” However, Graetz’s work also made him and his family a target for violence and harassment by the white citizens of Montgomery, including from law enforcement; his family received threatening phone calls against the lives of their young children, police officers harassed Graetz for participating in the carpool aiding the boycott, and the Graetz family home was bombed twice.
The family relocated to Columbus, Ohio, in 1958, where Graetz served as pastor for St. Philip Lutheran Church until 1967. He went on to work in Kentucky, California, and Washington, D.C., before returning to Montgomery in 2007. Graetz and his wife remained heavily involved in activism throughout their lives. After their son died of AIDS in 1991, they were arrested several times while working with Soulforce, a group that teaches King’s nonviolent direct action methods as a means to push for inclusive church policies for LGBTQ+ individuals. The couple has also been outspoken regarding their support for undocumented immigrants and in their condemnation of the normalization of escalating violence by white nationalist groups since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. While reflecting on his participation in the Montgomery bus boycott several years ago, Graetz recounted how church officials in Ohio, after informing him of his place of pastorage in Montgomery, asked him to promise not to start trouble. He said that he felt he had kept his promise, stating, “We did not start the trouble. We joined the trouble.”