Couple wages 60-year fight for rights of others
Josh Moon, Montgomery Advertiser12:32 a.m. CDT April 5, 2015
(Photo: Mickey Welsh / Advertiser)
There is a mantra that Rev. Robert Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, have lived by — a lesson taught by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and practiced among the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.
No violent thoughts, no violent words, no violent actions.
That might seem expected — that a reverend and his wife would shy away from violence — but most reverends don’t have violence show up repeatedly on their doorsteps, threaten their families and attempt to drive them out of town or out of this world.
In the world that the Graetzes found themselves in during the mid-1950s, abstaining from violent retaliation took monumental self-control. Refusing to run from the violent acts and threats of the opposition demanded a bravery few people possess. And forgiving those who perpetrated it all required a level of love and kindness not often seen in this world.
But that is Bob and Jeannie Graetz.
“Dr. King liked to say that you have to be non-violent with the fist, the tongue and the heart,” Rev. Graetz said. “That was the mantra of the Civil Rights Movement, that’s why it worked and was so successful. It was very hard at times to not lash out. But we understood the bigger goal, the bigger objective.”
The Graetzes were primary figures in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, with Rev. Graetz leading the predominately-black Trinity Lutheran Church and serving as the secretary of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the civil rights group formed by King, Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, Fred Gray and others to organize the Boycott.
Because the Graetzes were white, they drew more ire than most from the local racists. Their home was bombed twice, their car vandalized, their children threatened and their lives turned upside down.
But they never backed down, and during a lifetime of serving the oppressed — from those early days in Montgomery to helping the poor in Appalachia to pushing for women’s rights to leading the way for gay rights — the Graetzes never encountered a wrong that seemed too scary to tackle. That includes raising seven kids and helping to raise — or at the very least, really loving — 26 grandkids, 10 great-grandkids and one great-great-grandchild.
“Doing what’s right isn’t always the easiest path,” Jeannie said.
Sometimes, what’s right leads you through confrontations with madmen, deadly illnesses, overwhelming poverty, human suffering and human greed. Through it all, the Graetzes have trusted God, followed the teachings of Jesus and simply tried to do what’s right. They trusted that would lead the right way and protect their family.
That’s a lot of trust when the bombs are exploding.
The Test of Faith
The first bomb — a crude-but-deadly mishmash of 11 sticks of dynamite wrapped around a can of TNT powder, with two fuses protruding from either end — was tossed by a 19-year-old kid from Selma at the small home on Rosa Parks Avenue. Inside, sound asleep on that night in January 1957, were the Graetzes — Robert, Jeannie and three small children.
Just after throwing the heavy bomb, the kid — a member of the Ku Klux Klan — hopped back in a car with other KKK members and sped away. There was no reason to wait to see if the bomb went off. With that much dynamite and TNT, everyone in the city would know. It would likely level most of the block.
But it didn’t. When the bomb landed, the impact knocked the fuse out and the whole concoction rolled to a harmless stop.
“We would’ve died from that, there’s no doubt,” Jeannie said. “The demolitions people told us that it probably would’ve killed most of the people in the neighborhood.”
The KKK didn’t give up easily, though.
Around 2 a.m. that same night, the car of Klansmen returned to try again. This time, they tossed a second, smaller bomb in an effort to detonate the first. The first bomb remained dormant, but the second bomb exploded, blowing the windows out of the home, knocking doors off hinges and severely shaking the family inside.
“Scared us to death,” Rev. Graetz said.
“I had some anger after 2 o’clock in the morning and holding one baby and the other baby is 11 months old and not walking, and the house is in shambles,” Jeannie said. “The windows were gone and the doors were gone and you couldn’t put the baby down. There’s glass everywhere, there’s plaster on everything. It was terrible.
“I had a hard time forgiving them for that. How could someone bomb a house with babies in it? That bomb was supposed to kill us.”
But the Graetzes did forgive. They haven’t forgotten, but forgiveness is a must for them and a must for their goals. And while they never imagined that bombs would be tossed at their home, that there would be trouble for the white reverend and his family who were taking up the civil rights cause in Montgomery was always expected.
From the moment Rev. Graetz and Jeannie accepted their transfer to the predominately black Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery during the height of racial tension, they knew what they were getting into. Their decision to become two of the very few white people to actively participate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott was made with a complete understanding of the consequences.
“We were fully aware of the risks and dangers,” Rev. Graetz said. “Just a short time before we came here in 1955, Emmett Till had been murdered. So, we knew what the climate was. And we were leaving a black church (in Ohio), so that wasn’t new, either. Most of our church congregation was participating in the Boycott.
“There was an awareness that (the Boycott) was a very important activity that we were engaged in. As early as that very first mass meeting, there was a real sense that what was happening here was something that could change the world.”
Like many of the participants in that Boycott, the Graetzes knew the risks that accompanied their participation. Rev. Graetz said King made it clear during one of the early meetings that some of the participants would likely die during the fight. A bomb at the Graetzes’ home in August 1956 (they were out of town at the time) drove that point home.
Four years after marrying Jeannie in 1951, Rev. Graetz graduated from seminary school in Ohio and received his first assignment. Because there was a shortage of black seminary school graduates, there was routinely a shortage of black Lutheran preachers available to lead black churches in the South, which left the task most often to the youngest white graduates.
That was how Graetz wound up drawing Montgomery’s Trinity Lutheran as an assignment.
“When I started to leave to come here, they told me, ‘We want you to go serve that congregation, but you have to promise that you won’t start trouble,'” Graetz said, with a laugh. “I like to tell people that we didn’t start trouble. When we got here there was already trouble.”
Shortly after arriving in 1955, the Graetzes met Rosa Parks, who was serving as the adult adviser to the NAACP youth chapter that met at Trinity. Parks was heavily involved in most of the civil rights work taking place around the city, and soon the Graetzes were sucked in as well.
“We just fell in love with her,” Rev. Graetz said. “She was such a great lady, and so brave.”
When Parks, attorney Fred Gray, activist E.D. Nixon and King formed the Montgomery Improvement Association after Parks’ arrest and the boycott began, Rev. Graetz was added to the board, eventually serving as MIA secretary. He and Jeannie began taking part in shuttling boycotters around the city and helping the MIA with planning and organization.
Because they were white, their participation in the Boycott drew immediate attention, and violence. In additions to the bombings, Jeannie said there were constant threats, rocks thrown at their home and someone tampered with their car, pouring sugar in the gas tank and slashing their tires.
“It was a very disconcerting time,” Jeannie said. “We never doubted what we were doing. Not once. And we mostly didn’t worry about ourselves. But the children were a different matter.”
On the night of the bombing in 1957, the Graetzes family included three small children, two of whom were under the age of 1. Throughout their three-year stay, their children were the target of constant threats.
“Someone would write that they’ve seen our kids out playing in the yard and they had a gun there and that they could just shoot them,” Jeannie said. “Things like that, they scared you to death.”
Rev. Graetz said, “There were many conversations about what to do with the kids, how to better protect them. We discussed sending them away to live with relatives.”
But as quickly as the words came out of his mouth, Jeannie corrected him.
“No, some of our family talked about it, we never did,” she said. “That wasn’t an option. These were our kids. We eventually came to the conclusion that we couldn’t really protect them if someone truly wanted to do them harm, just like with anyone’s kids. We had to leave that up to God.”
God did just fine, with a little help from lights, the occasional night watchmen and purchased information from not-so-trustworthy informants.
After the initial bombing at their home, the Graetzes installed better lighting, so, as Rev. Graetz put it, they could “see who’s throwing the bombs.”
They also hired a number of guards to watch the house at night, but kept running into problems. One of the guards made frequent visits to the nearby bar while on duty. Another had to be let go when the Graetzes discovered he was carrying guns — a no-no with the non-violent MIA, even if the guns were only for fighting off men with bombs.
The Graetzes, along with a number of members of the MIA, frequently paid for information from informants. Men would show up often claiming to have details of planned attacks, and after providing it, “they would always want bus fare so they could get out of town,” Rev. Graetz said.
“We never knew who we could trust or how reliable the information was, but we paid for it and didn’t take the chance,” he said. “One piece of information we got was that the Klan was going to attack us during the next big storm at night, whenever it was. Just so happened that the night before one of our planning meetings, there was a huge thunderstorm. The running sarcastic joke at the meeting was that everyone slept like a baby the night before.”
Not just black and white
When the Graetzes packed up the kids and their belongings to leave Montgomery in September 1958 — after being asked twice and being visited by the bishop, who came to “strongly encourage” a move back to Ohio — Jeannie said she had come to the realization that civil rights was about more than race.
The lessons learned during three years in Alabama had impressed upon all of the Graetzes that equality and love were something all people deserved and that many people struggled to obtain.
“It’s not just about black and white,” Jeannie said. “There are many people who are oppressed in this world — women, the poor, handicapped individuals, gays. That’s what we learned.”
And over the past 60 years, the Graetzes have helped them all. They have worked in Ohio, Kentucky, California and Washington D.C. Rev. Graetz served as a lobbyist for 13 years, trying to ensure passage of legislation that aided the needy. They have worked and lived in some of the poorest communities in the Appalachians.
“We worked for 30 years in Appalachia, seeing what severe poverty is like,” Rev. Graetz said. “And we weren’t richer than our people. That helps.”
Jeannie said that raising seven children on a small income, learning to rely on and trust those around the communities in which they lived and trying to remove judgment of others helped them connect.
“From here to every place we’ve been, we’ve been blessed by being accepted,” Jeannie said. “That is a real blessing — being accepted.”
The lessons on acceptance and tolerance started at home for the Graetzes. Their first son, Robert Graetz III, who died in 1999 from AIDS, was openly gay.
“God played show-and-tell with us and we were forced to deal with these situations,” Rev. Graetz said. “It was something that made us better. Our first son was never in the closet. We have a granddaughter now who used to be a grandson. We have two grandchildren who are severely handicapped.
“So, we had opportunities placed in our path by God that we couldn’t avoid.”
Nor would they want to. When the Graetzes speak of their family, there is a smile and a beam of pride. Not because any of the kids or the 26 grandkids or the 10 great-grandkids or one great-great-grandkid have become ultra-successful doctors or lawyers or businessmen, although some are quite successful, but because the family is happy and tolerant.
Jeannie boasted that they just welcomed their first Chinese grandchild. They already have French and Moroccans in the family. There are six grandkids who are Muslim.
“We even have a Republican,” Jeannie whispers, then laughs.
Jeannie is in her final semester of college at Alabama State University — a longtime goal to finish up a teaching degree that she started in the 1950s. This spring, she will walk across the stage at ASU and accept her degree. Most of the family plans to be there.
And that is fitting, both that she is earning the degree and that it is coming from ASU. The historically black university has itself been an example of racial equality in the way it’s treated the Graetzes. In 2005, university officials called Rev. Graetz and asked if they would be interested in returning to Montgomery and leading the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Studies.
ASU provided an on-campus apartment for them to live. The Graetzes mostly conduct lectures, and they host the annual Graetz Symposium. The 9th annual Graetz Symposium takes place on April 9 and is titled “The Beloved Community: Forming Partnerships to Promote Reconciliation.”
The symposiums always involve a goal of achieving the “beloved community,” which was the dream King had for the U.S. It is a dream that the Graetzes see the country moving away from today, instead of closer.
“Racism in our day was clear and overt,” Rev. Graetz said. “Nowadays, though, most of the people who exhibit racism honestly believe that they’re not racists. That is a huge problem.”
But the biggest issue facing the country, Rev. Graetz said, is “classism.” The widening income gap coupled with so much political power resting with so few people has left the poor in America fighting to keep their heads above water.
Like other Civil Rights leaders of the past, though, the Graetzes see the problem starting to draw the attention of more and more young people across the country. From the Occupy Wall Street protests to Ferguson to the growing number of activist groups, there is an increasing concern.
“There are plenty of people strong enough to do this, to take this on,” Jeannie said. “You just have to break the battles down and make it where they’re manageable. That’s what we did. That’s why it all worked.”
When the Graetzes look back on those accomplishments — not just the role they played in the fight for civil rights in the 1950s, but on a lifetime of helping the poorest, the sickest, the most oppressed — it is not pride that they feel. They never did anything with the goal of personal glory. They never entered a fight or took up a cause to draw attention to themselves.
Instead, Robert and Jeannie Graetz did what they thought was right, what they thought God would instruct them to do, what they thought would leave this city, this state and this country a little better than the way they found it. And that’s why, when he’s asked what he feels about this life he’s led and the things he’s accomplished, Rev. Robert Graetz needs only one word.