Martin Luther King and Robert Graetz

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Although the social revolution led by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. grew out of the black church, from even the earliest days of the movement there were white foot soldiers, too. King initially came to national prominence while leading the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was serving in his first job as a local pastor, and working closely with him there was a young white pastor named Robert Graetz.

REV. ROBERT GRAETZ: We were here because God brought us here, and in a very real sense this changed the character of the movement here, because it was not totally black then from that point on.

LAWTON: Graetz is now 82 years old and still active in the Montgomery community.

GRAETZ: Fifty years ago we were a praying people…

LAWTON: On this day, he’s participating in the unveiling of a new sign marking a site that was important during the bus boycott. He and his wife, Jean, still work for civil rights, reconciliation, and a vision that began more than 50 years ago, a vision they shared with King called “the beloved community.”

post07-mlkgraetzGRAETZ: We are all different, but we are still all together in this one relationship, and the key to that kind of a relationship was respect, which means I look at you and I say, you know, “I know that you have value. God put value in you.” You look at me and you say the same thing.

LAWTON: Graetz had grown up in an all-white Lutheran community in West Virginia. While he was in college in Ohio, he become aware of the injustices faced by African Americans and had what he calls his “race relations awakening.” Graetz and his wife got involved in ministries in black communities, and when he finished seminary, Lutheran officials asked him to pastor an all-black congregation in Montgomery.

GRAETZ: We had very few black pastors because we require the seminary training for all pastors. That’s why they needed some white pastors like me to serve in largely black congregations.

LAWTON: The young Graetz family arrived in Montgomery in 1955 and began their work at Trinity Lutheran Church. They soon met a neighbor named Rosa Parks.

GRAETZ: When we got into town she was one of the first people outside of the congregation that we met. She was the adult advisor to the NAACP youth council which met in our church, so we saw her regularly.

LAWTON: Graetz was also introduced to another new pastor, King, who had arrived the year before.

post08-mlkgraetzGRAETZ: I decided that anybody who sounded as smart as he was and was articulate as he was, and had the name Martin Luther, I had to get to know him better.

LAWTON: He also came to know the struggles of his congregation because of segregation and discrimination on every front, including the public transportation system.

GRAETZ: 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, it would be the buses. Everybody either experienced bad treatment on the buses or knew people who had been treated badly.

LAWTON: Several local activists, including the Women’s Political Council, had been talking about staging a boycott. Then came the final catalyst: the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat. When a boycott was called for the following Monday, Graetz says he faced an ethical dilemma because of concerns about what his denominational leaders might think.

GRAETZ: 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.

LAWTON: On Sunday morning, Graetz stood before his church and expressed full support for the boycott.

post03-mlkgraetzGRAETZ: 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.

LAWTON: Community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to oversee the boycott. King was the chairman, and executive committee members included Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, as well as one white member—Robert Graetz. Graetz says it was exhilarating to be part of it all.

GRAETZ: The feeling among the people across the community was that we were doing something that was changing the world.

DR. HOWARD ROBINSON (Archivist, National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture at Alabama State University): The Graetzs were really like one of the very few white people in Montgomery who took a very overt, obvious position in support of the boycott, and they suffered because of it.

post05-mlkgraetzLAWTON: The Graetz family became targets of the Ku Klux Klan.

GRAETZ: People would call us up and say, “I see your children out in the yard there. Are you sure they’re okay out there?” And the children would be in the yard, so that we knew that there were people who were looking at what was going on.

JEAN GRAETZ: I was scared to go out and take the trash out, because I knew that these people had been around our house and put sugar in the gas tank and slashed our tires, and I didn’t feel safe outside at night.

LAWTON: Their parsonage next to the church was bombed twice, once while no one was home, and once in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping, including their nine-day-old baby. The house sustained some damage, but no one was injured. Supporters later planted a tree in the crater where the bomb went off. Graetz says he and his wife wrestled over the impact on their children.

GRAETZ: It was okay for Jeannie and me to put our lives in danger, but did we have the right to put our children through that? And we finally decided that we couldn’t control that—that God had brought us here, the children were in God’s hands, and if God wanted them to be protected, that would be his job.

LAWTON: Jean Graetz says African-American friends and sympathetic white supporters gave them strength.

post06-mlkgraetzJEAN GRAETZ: I felt that the Lord had put a circle of love around us, because we had wonderful friends, and I knew God’s love was around us, and I just pictured this circle around us so that the hate from the people that didn’t like us couldn’t get through.

LAWTON: Graetz says the civil rights movement had a strong spiritual underpinning. The weekly mass meetings held in support of the boycott were basically worship services, full of prayer, sermons, and lots of singing of traditional hymns.

GRAETZ: These hymns oftentimes took on new significance because of how they related to how people related to one another in the movement. Bible verses which we would think of—oh, that’s a nice thought—became deeply moving to us because of what we were going through here.

LAWTON: Graetz says this reflected the theological tone set by King.

GRAETZ: In effect, the church in the black community was reinterpreting what the Bible said about how human beings ought to treat one another, so that it was the black Christians teaching white Christians what it meant to be Christian.

LAWTON: After about a year, the boycott ended when courts struck down the bus segregation laws. At the last mass meeting, Graetz read the Scriptures—I Corinthians 13, the well-known passage about love.

GRAETZ: And I got up and started reading and in the middle of the reading, again, loud applause, and I thought, they’re not letting me finish. And I looked down at what I was reading and realized that what I had just read was, “When I became a man I put away childish things.” And people knew that we had matured in this process. We were different people.

LAWTON: The Graetzs have remained active in many civil rights causes. They are now consultants at Alabama State University’s National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture. http://www.lib.alasu.edu/natctr/ They give tours and discussions about justice and the work that still needs to be done in order to achieve their vision of the beloved community.

GRAETZ: People will say to us, “We really appreciate what you did,” and our response always is it wasn’t just us. It was 50,000 black people who stood together, who walked together, who worked together, who stood up against oppression. If it had not been for this whole body of people working together, this would not have happened.

LAWTON: And that’s a story they want to keep alive.

I’m Kim Lawton in Montgomery, Alabama.

  • Rev. Helen McLeod

    Thank you for this article. I would never have known about this wonderful couple and their strength and faith- and friendship with King if were not for reading it. It provides inspiration to me for my endeavors.
    With Gratitude,
    Rev. Helen McLeod
    Unity Minister

  • Debra W.

    Very Informative interveiw and it confirms that it took the efforts and support of the white and black communities to bring about social change. Also it gives me greater appreciation for the dangers activist faced during the civil rights movement.

  • Sandra Garner

    I am a Lutheran and never heard about this amazing Lutheran pastor even though I was a college student in the late 1960′s .

  • Rev. Jon Strasman

    I am Sandra Garner’s Pastor. I like the piece how the African Americans taught the whites how to reinterpret scripture on how to treat one another. This is something I am learning is very important as we deal with Gay/Lesbian issues in our church. Lord help us to all recognize how civil rights issues are ever before. Teach us to be bold like the Graetz’.

  • Rev. Andrew E Dawkins

    The Graetz’s are not only bold but courageous and truth in what you see. They are not just in this place; they are icons of love for brother and sisters; caring for you where you are. The Graetz are living examples of the closest couple I have known to exemplify an almost perfect marriage. Thier children are examples of thier family love and sharing. I am glad to share friendship with them and growth through association.

  • Nnene Ibe Onuma

    Faced with segregation against blacks, the Graetz’s were real Gods sent and true beleivers who practice what the bible teaches. Infact with this you know that this got nothing to do with race or color but individual attribute.

  • Sloane Allen

    1. the thoughts that come to mind when hearing the name Martin Luther King Jr. Man there are a lot of thoughts that come to mind. This man is one of the strongest men that one could ever imagine. He fought for what he believed in and never gave up. He believed that God had a plan for him and he was going to see through with this plan. No matter what this man faced he never stopped doing what he believed in and fought for what he thought was right. he never gave up and showed everyone that if you are passionate about something go for it full hearted and never back down.

    2. his life has impacted my life tremedously in the fact that if he can fight for something with such passion why cant everyone do the same. he has shown me to never back down and always no matter what fight for the right reasons and continue until you cant any longer. why do people give up so easily on a matter that they want to fight for? because they wnat to make enemies, they dont want to bring the people who are wrong into the light and prove they are wrong. Stand up for what you believe in and fight for what you think is right and never let anyone say that you are wrong.

    3. the lessons learned are the even Rev. Graetz never gave up. he was fighting for what was right and even though the KKK and other wrong people came and tried to break him down he never gave up and still kept fighting. He had a support system that was right there beside him and fought with him. You have to have passion and feel what you are fighting for is worth fighting for. Dont let people intimidate you, stand up and keep fighting never back down.

  • Sloane Allen

    what comes to mind is strength, oppertunity, and vision of never backing down. Dr. King never settled for less or gave up on his beliefs. He fought for what was right. Cant was not in his vocabulary. He always fought with passion even when the going got tough. He impacted my life tremedously because he tought me to fight for what I think is right and never give up. Dont let anyone tell me I cant. Lessons learned are that even though some people may not agree with your opinion, dont let them change your mind, stick with your true feelings and passionately fight till the end.

  • Joshieeeeeee

    Booty!