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Born in Clarksburg, Robert Sylvester Graetz Jr. (May 16, 1928-September 20, 2020) helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, and was the only White minister in the highly segregated Alabama city to support the boycott publicly.

The son of an engineer, Graetz grew up during the Great Depression and World War II attending segregated schools in Clarksburg. His great-grandfather was a Lutheran minister, and his grandfather, a devout Lutheran, encouraged him to follow the same path.

Graetz left Clarksburg to attend Capital University in Ohio, where he developed an interest in inequality and social justice. He organized a “race relations” club at the university and joined the Columbus chapter of the NAACP.

He met his future wife, Jeannie Ellis, while they were both students, and they married in 1951.

During the 1950s, the Lutheran Church was grappling with a shortage of Black clergyman. Graetz was asked to minister at African-American churches. He served as a student pastor in Los Angeles for two years, and then returned with his family to Columbus where he earned his divinity degree.

In June 1955, Graetz and his family moved to Montgomery, where he served as the minister at Trinity Lutheran Church. His church sponsored a NAACP youth group, through which he and his wife met Rosa Parks.

He had been there just a few months when the bus boycott began, sparked by Parks’ arrest and led by the fellow Montgomery minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Originally planned for just one day, the boycott lasted more than a year. Many Black residents relied on the bus system, so Graetz drove his parishioners to and from work in his own car.

As a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Graetz raised money for gas and automobile expenses and organized carpools. He also wrote to other White ministers, urging them to publicly support the boycott. None ever did.

The Ku Klux Klan and other White supremacists targeted Graetz and his family over his support of the boycott. He and his family were harassed and threatened. Their home was bombed twice, once when the family was away, and once when the couple and their children were at home. Suspects in the attacks were arrested, but acquitted by all-White juries.

In 2015, Graetz reflected on those times. He characterized the struggle for racial justice in which he had participated as a spiritual movement: “It was the people of God putting into practice their understanding of what God meant for their lives to be like. In Montgomery, it was Black Christians teaching White Christians how to be Christian.”

Graetz and his family left Montgomery in 1958, though he remained committed to the cause of social justice throughout his lifetime. He ministered at churches in Ohio, Kentucky, and California. He operated a street ministry in Washington D.C. in the 1960s and lobbied on behalf of marginalized individuals.

Robert and Jeannie Graetz visited Montgomery over the years to commemorate the bus boycott. In 2007 they returned permanently to Montgomery, where they organized regular symposiums on civil rights issues. Graetz died at 92 at his home in Montgomery.

This Article was written by Becky Calwell

Last Revised on April 12, 2021


Cite This Article

Calwell, Becky "Robert Graetz." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 12 April 2021. Web. 26 September 2021.

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