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Robert Graetz, lone white minister to support Montgomery bus boycott, dies

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, Rev. Robert Graetz and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talk together.
The Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, left, Rev. Robert S. Graetz, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talk during a bombing trial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1957.
(Associated Press)

The Rev. Robert Graetz, the only white minister to support the Montgomery bus boycott and who became the target of scorn and bombings for doing so, died Sunday at his home in Alabama. He was 92.

Graetz died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, said Kenneth Mullinax, a friend and family spokesman.

Graetz was the minister of the majority-Black Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church in Montgomery, Ala. He was the only local white clergyman to support the boycott. He and his wife, Jeannie, faced harassment, threats and bombings as a result.

Sparked by the December 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks, the planned one-day boycott of Montgomery City Lines became a 381-day protest of the segregated bus system that ended with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.

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The parsonage where the Graetzes lived was twice hit by bombs, once when they were away and again in 1957, not long after the boycott ended, in a wave of attacks by white supremacists on civil rights leaders and churches. Four Black churches and the home of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy were also bombed on Jan. 10, 1957. The Graetzes were at home with their children at the time, including their then-9-day-old baby.

One bomb blew out the windows of the home. A second bomb, a package of 11 sticks of dynamite wrapped around a small box of TNT, was at the parsonage earlier that night but failed to explode.

In his book, “A White Preacher’s Message on Race and Reconciliation,” Graetz described how during those years of danger he played a game with his children in which he encouraged them to duck behind the sofa if they were told to hide because of a strange noise outside.

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Despite the scorn, violence and threats he and his wife faced, Graetz wrote they would not change a thing if they were given the opportunity.

“The privilege of standing up for righteousness and justice and love is greater than any other reward we might have received,” Graetz wrote.

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said Graetz “lived what he preached.”

“Rev. Robert Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, stood against hate and put their lives in danger because the cause, of their all-Black congregation and the community itself, was just,” Reed said.

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Tafeni English, the director of the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, called Graetz a “remarkable civil rights and social justice leader.”

“Rev. Graetz was a kind and gentle soul, who along with his revered wife, Jeannie, dedicated his life to creating Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community,” English said.

Graetz is survived by his wife and several children.

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