Lutheran minister the Rev. Robert Graetz died Sunday at the age of 92. He was the only white member of the Montgomery clergy to support the Montgomery bus boycott.
Graetz was the only white clergyman to support the boycott, and like other participants in the boycott, the reverend and his family persisted in the face of harassment, terrorism, and death threats that extended to their preschool children. Vandals poured sugar in their gas tank; slashed their tires and sprayed acid over their cars. White students on segregated school buses shouted “n—r lover” at Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, as they walked the street. The family home was bombed twice, and while arrests were made, no one was ever convicted.
The Lutheran Church faced a shortage of Black clergy in the 1950s, and Graetz was asked to minister at majority-Black churches. He started as a student pastor at Community Lutheran Church in Los Angeles in 1952. After earning a divinity degree from what is now Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, Graetz went to the 210-member Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery in June 1955.
While the Graetzes were not the only whites involved in the boycott — Clifford and Virginia Durr* provided legal and financial support — the young couple were the only white members of the clergy to publicly support it. Graetz attempted to enlist other white ministers to support the boycott. He wrote letters to fellow clergymen on stationery with a quote from Acts 8:26 (“And the Angel of the Lord spake unto Phillip saying: ‘Arise, go toward the South’”), asking them to consider this matter “prayerfully and carefully, with Christian love. Our Lord said, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”
He was not successful. The association representing white ministers in Montgomery refused Graetz’s invitation to a talk from the Rev. Martin Luther King about the boycott.
From the New York Times obituary:
As a young Lutheran minister in Alabama in the 1950s, the Rev. Robert S. Graetz Jr. would alternate his driving routes to thwart attackers. He once measured a 15-inch-deep crater left by a bomb that had targeted his home in Montgomery. And to shield his young children from fear — and the shards of glass that would follow another explosion — he would play a “game” with them in which they would crawl behind a couch when there was a suspicious sound outside.
Although the authorities made arrests in the attacks, the suspects were acquitted by all-white juries. Mr. Graetz believed that the jurors had begrudged him for helping Black people.
* Virginia Durr was a member of the Episcopal Church.