A White Preacher's Memoir: The Montgomery Bus Boycott


In this eloquent, compassionate memoir, Bob Graetz describes how in 1955 he was a young white Lutheran minister assigned to a black church in Montgomery, Alabama. Before the year was out, Rosa Parks was arrested and the Bus Boycott began. Graetz became the only local white minister who supported the boycott, and he and his family were thrust into the center of the year-long struggle that kicked off the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Graetz family endured bombings, arrests, and regular harassment, but they also...
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In this eloquent, compassionate memoir, Bob Graetz describes how in 1955 he was a young white Lutheran minister assigned to a black church in Montgomery, Alabama. Before the year was out, Rosa Parks was arrested and the Bus Boycott began. Graetz became the only local white minister who supported the boycott, and he and his family were thrust into the center of the year-long struggle that kicked off the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Graetz family endured bombings, arrests, and regular harassment, but they also rejoiced in the remarkable spirit of a black community throwing off the shackles of segregation. Graetz's memoir describes the inner workings of the boycott and gives personal glimpses of Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Gray, and others among the boycott leaders.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At a time when it is easy to feel jaded about politics, race relations and religion, Graetz offers a time capsule with a potent humbling effect. In 1955, he was assigned as pastor to Trinity Lutheran Church in the black community in Montgomery, Ala., a conspicuous position for a young white man and his family, especially since they came from the North. Writing with the unassuming style of a country preacher, Graetz's gentle voice proves riveting in this account of the civil rights movement, looking outward from the eye of the storm. The book opens with a potentially devastating bomb attack on Graetz's house in retaliation for his involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott, which he and his family luckily survived. He chronicles the "brutal and dehumanizing treatment" of blacks for decades, often at the hands of the police, and the violent resistance against the new black movement for dignity, which culminated in a landmark Supreme Court ruling, only to usher in the battle to enforce it. Graetz knew Martin Luther King Jr. socially, Ralph Abernathy politically and Rosa Parks spiritually, as a member of his congregation. Having been invited to join all-black civil rights and clerical associations, Graetz often uses the term "we" when writing of the black community's struggle for human rights, though as a friend reminded him in the 1950s, as a white man he could always walk away. Risking reprimand by the church, Graetz drew more blacks to the Lutheran fold until he was called to a new post in Columbus, Ohio, in the summer of 1958. Rich with family stories and racial insights, this brief book leaves a lasting impression. Photos. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Graetz, a white Lutheran pastor from Ohio, became the minister of an all-black congregation in Montgomery, AL, in 1955. In the years that followed, he was intimately involved in the famous bus boycott and other early Civil Rights protests. His vivid first-hand account includes glimpses of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other legendary figures, but the book's real appeal is in its accounts of the brave and unknown people of the community Graetz knew intimately and in the quiet heroism of Graetz himself. Amidst death threats and repeated bombings of their home, he and his family continually demonstrated a commitment to freedom and justice that grew directly out of their faith and trust in God. Anyone interested in the early days of the struggle for racial equality from the point of view of a dedicated Christian will find Graetz's book both moving and informative. Recommended for academic and public libraries.--C. Robert Nixon, MLS, Lafayette, IN Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781579660154
  • Publisher: River City Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Startled out of a sound sleep, Jeannie and I sat bolt upright in bed.

    "My word. Another bomb!" Jeannie cried.

    The time was 2:00 A.M. The date, January 10, 1957. The place, the parsonage of Trinity Lutheran Church, 1110 Cleveland Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama. Jeannie had been home from the hospital for not quite four days, having just given birth to our fourth child, a son, David Ellis Graetz. But she was certainly right. It was another bomb.

    I leaped out of bed and raced through the house, checking the rest of the family. In the next bedroom our two oldest children, Margee—four—and Bobby—almost three—sat up trembling, their wide-eyed faces filled with fear.

    "Are you okay?"

    "Yes, Daddy. What was that noise?"

    "Some bad people bombed our house."

    The children were bewildered and frightened but deceptively calm.

    Having assured myself that Margee and Bobby were all right, I hurried into the front bedroom. My mother, who had come to help with the new baby, was sharing that room with little Dianne, whose first birthday we would celebrate in just two weeks. Dianne was crying, so I was glad that Mother would be fully occupied.

    I ran into the living room and stopped in shock. At the opposite end of the room, the remains of our front door hung at a crazy angle, still partly secured by its hinges. Other pieces of the door were scattered nearby. I couldhardly see. The explosion had knocked out our electric power, and a fog of plaster dust hung in the air, obscuring even the glow from the street lights outside. I looked to my left. Where there had been a large picture window overlooking the street, now only a gaping hole remained. Remembering another time our house had been bombed, I glanced down. Fragments of shattered glass covered the entire floor. And there I stood in the middle of it—barefooted!

    Suddenly, the face of one of our neighbors appeared in the opening that used to be the doorway. "Everybody all right in there?"

    "We're fine, thanks."

    Our friend, the manager of the Carver Theatre, a movie house for Negroes in Montgomery, had been visiting some people in the Cleveland Court apartments, about half a block away, when they heard the explosion, the first of six that night in Montgomery.

    By the time I put on my robe and went outside, a substantial crowd had gathered in front of our house. Milling around in the darkness, several of us stumbled over a large object in the driveway. Someone produced a match. We leaned over to find out what it was.

    If Jeannie had been outside, she could have used her line again: My word! It was another bomb! The match, of course, was extinguished immediately, so we didn't get a good look at this new bomb until a few hours later when more light was available. It turned out to be eleven sticks of dynamite taped around a container of TNT, the whole device fastened to what appeared to be part of a television antenna.

    The bomb had two fuses. Only one had been lit. Demolitions experts told us later that those fuses were almost totally foolproof. Nothing could have stopped them from working. But our friend from up the street had seen the bomb when he arrived and immediately removed the fuses. We were so thankful he had picked that night to visit with his neighbors into the wee hours of the morning!

    The same demolitions people also told us that the bomb should have exploded when it landed, even without the fuses, because of the TNT. They couldn't understand what kept it from blowing up. This was only one of God's many miracles throughout those stressful days.

    During the general confusion, someone eventually realized that we should notify the police. Our phone had been knocked out by the blast, but a neighbor offered his. I found the number and dialed, unprepared for the strange conversation that followed.

    "Police Department."

    "Hello. I'd like to report a bombing."

    "Sure, Buddy, tell me all about it. Where is it this time?"

    I gave him my address, but he still acted as though he didn't believe me.

    Later we discovered why the dispatcher had been so skeptical. The bombers had been clever. Knowing how many police cruisers were on patrol at night, they had phoned in false reports of bombings to distract the cruisers away from the actual sites of their targets. Our house was the first one hit, but already the police department had received more bombing reports than they could handle.

    My conversation with the police dispatcher would have been troubling under any circumstances. In the 1950s any contact with a white policeman was unnerving if you happened to be black or associated with black people. The police force represented the front line of the white segregationist army. In earlier times, business and professional men put on their white robes and hoods and rode out as the Ku Klux Klan, using whatever violence and scare tactics were necessary to "keep the niggers in their place." But that kind of illegal activity was no longer tolerated, at least not officially. Nowadays the task of controlling Negroes was entrusted to the legally constituted constabulary. But no matter how much the process was cleaned up, Negroes were still subject to brutal and dehumanizing treatment.

    I used to hear stories about people's personal experiences with police all the time. Often the stories dealt with white policemen sexually molesting Negro women. One study of illegitimate babies born to black women in a small Southern city reported that a large percentage of those babies were fathered by white policemen!

    So there was always apprehension when it was necessary to call the police. But the Montgomery police arrived soon after we called them, and they took charge of the situation. We were happy to see them remove the bomb, which had been lying in the driveway all that time.

    The demolition experts later told us that if the larger bomb had exploded, the entire neighborhood would have been leveled. God was indeed watching over us!

    Not until several days later did we realize how traumatic this experience had been for our children.

    One night, shortly after putting them to bed, I went into the backyard to take care of our dog. A bad washer on the outside water spigot caused that rumbling, roaring sound that every do-it-yourselfer recognizes. I drew some water for our dog Skippy, unaware of the trauma it caused inside. Our young son started crying and screaming.

    Jeannie rushed in to see what was wrong. "What was that noise?" Bobby cried.

    "That was just Daddy, getting some water for Skippy."

    Though obviously relieved, Bobby still needed to be held for quite some time before he finally calmed down. After a while, Jeannie placed him back in his bed. His eyes had closed, but he was not quite asleep.

    As Jeannie left the bedroom, she heard his barely audible voice. "I thought those bad people boomed our house again, but it was only Daddy getting some water for Skippy." He drifted back to sleep with a contented look on his face, his fading voice repeating, "I thought those bad people boomed our house again, but it was only Daddy getting some water for Skippy."

    This was Montgomery, Alabama, in the mid-1950s—"The Cradle of the Confederacy." The War between the States (Southerners didn't use the term Civil War) may have ended ninety years before according to the history books but not in the hearts of the people who had been on the losing side. In the 1950s many politicians were elected by shouting "Segregation forever!" and by using "nigger-talk." Confederate flags flew everywhere, including the top of the state capitol building.

    This was Montgomery, Alabama; we were outsiders from the North, intruders, a threat to the fabric of Southern society (so we were told). In the minds of some people our most grievous sin was that we were white and that we lived and worked with Negroes. Our critics could never understand why we came.

    I had grown up in the city. Born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, I spent most of my early years in Charleston, West Virginia's state capital. Though a metropolitan center, the city was nestled in a narrow portion of the Kanawha River valley. Few places in town were far from the surrounding hills. Even as a small boy, I spent much of my free time hiking and exploring rock formations and caves. Somewhat introverted as a young teenager, I loved to walk the three short blocks from our house to the nearest wood hill, hike to the peak, find a good climbing tree, and perch on a comfortable branch while I looked out over the valley and meditated.

    I was the older of Bob and Mackie Graetz's two children, my sister being about two years younger. In our early years, Suzanne was the more extroverted; nevertheless, she became a chemist, and I became a minister. My dad, a chemical engineer, began as a researcher for a glass plant in Clarksburg and then spent the rest of his career working for the Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company. Though my mother held paying jobs from time to time, what I remember most are the many hours she spent as a volunteer—working for the Red Cross, knitting warm hats for American sailors during the second World War, filling in wherever she was needed.

    I grew up in a largely segregated society in Charleston, attending all-white public schools. There were black people around, but my only real contacts with blacks were with janitors and others in menial positions. Helen, our cleaning woman, was the one I knew best. Otherwise, Negroes had no significance for me. They weren't important. My attitudes reflected those of most white people in the early 1940s. Negroes, often the butt of jokes, were not considered people of any value.

    While in high school, two of my friends and I put together a minstrel show. We entertained youth groups as well as church women's organizations. The women were not impressed with our humor, but neither did they see the impropriety of our making jokes at the expense of an entire racial group. To our shame, we didn't either.

    When we talked about discrimination at school, we were referring to the treatment of Jews. In the early 1940s, most colleges had "quotas" to limit the number of Jewish students. We cheered with our Jewish friends who managed to squeeze in under the quotas of their chosen schools and grieved with those who didn't.

    In 1946, after World War II, I graduated from high school and enrolled at Capital University. I majored in German, in part so that I would be able to read the old theological books that had been passed on to me from my great-grandfather, another Reverend Robert Graetz. From early childhood I had heard German and I spoke a few words of it.

    But a sociology course in my junior year completely changed my plans. Doing research for a term paper on discrimination against Jews in higher education, I discovered to my amazement that black people had been almost totally excluded from many U.S. institutions of higher education. I couldn't believe it! That revelation altered my life and my ministry forever.

    Switching my major to social science, I also organized a Race Relations Club on campus and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Soon I was actively involved in the Columbus chapter of the NAACP, soliciting memberships on campus. A typical new convert, I was full of zeal to eradicate racial prejudice and discrimination wherever it existed.

    Also typically, I was naive and unlearned in the field of race relations. It seemed to me that the best way to understand black people would be to become one of them. So I tried to figure out a way to be accepted as a black, being aware by this time that were many Negroes whose physical characteristics made them appear to be Caucasian.

    The solution seemed simple enough. I would transfer to a Negro college and pretend I was a Negro. Many years passed before I understood that I could never be accepted as a Negro, no matter how much I wanted to. A wise black friend explained to me, "You always have the option of walking out. We don't."

    Jeannie's background was far different from mine. Raised on a farm near the small town of East Springfield, Pennsylvania, near Lake Erie, where her family had lived since the early 1800s, Jeannie was the second of five daughters born to Marshall and Marian Ellis. Like most farmers, Marshall had hoped for sons to help with the "man's work." Even more importantly, no boys had been born into the current generation of Ellises. An old family name was about to be lost. Marshall and Marian kept trying for their boy, but it was not to be. Marshall said resignedly, "The boys will come." (Did they ever! All five daughters are married now and the Marshall Ellis family has become quite a large clan, with many boys in the succeeding generations.)

    Jeannie says that not having boys around in no way hindered the farm work. "We were his boys," she reflects. "We did every kind of work that any farm boy ever did." She even maintained a "trap line," catching fur-bearing animals along the creek that meandered through their farm and selling their hides for cash. Working hard, she saved her money, later paying her own way in college.

    Sometimes there were unexpected problems with saving money. When Jeannie was still a small girl, her Dad used to give her a nickel a day to do certain early morning chores. Not wanting to squander her hard-earned cash, she buried a tin can in the dirt of the basement floor. Each day she secretly went to the basement, dug up the can, and deposited the day's earnings. Later on, knowing she had accumulated enough to do something special, Jeannie went down to the basement to count her treasure. To her utter dismay, the nickels had all corroded. She thought her fortune had been wiped out. (Later she cleaned off the corrosion, invested the cash, and found a safer way to store her money.)

    Although she was petite, Jeannie's small stature never kept her from tackling any size job. (Our children always enjoyed teasing their mom about her height when, one by one, they passed her up.) When she stretches as high as she can, Jeannie just makes it to five feet.

    None of her family was tall. But they had the kind of pride that comes naturally to farm families, and with it, plenty of gumption. Jeannie tells a story about her Grandpa Smith. One evening during World War II, the family was gathered in their living room, discussing current events on the battle fields. Grandpa Smith spoke of an action in "Tunsia." Jeannie smiled at him and said innocently, "Grandpa, you mean Tunisia." At that, Grandpa Smith drew himself up to his full five-foot-two height, held his chest out and his chin up, and replied sternly, "I said Tunsia!" When anybody in our family is acting inordinately stubborn, someone else is likely to break the impasse by saying, "I said Tunsia!"

    But one particular feature in Jeannie's personality made her a perfect coworker in the ministry we would later share. As a young child, she remembers being attracted to people who were different, even making a point of striking up a conversation with a person who was being ignored by the rest of the group. Those who suffered handicaps or were different from others had a friend in Jeannie Ellis.

    When I asked what compelled her to relate to other people in that manner, she cited three factors:

    First, it was her way of rebelling against an adult world that didn't live up to her expectations or to their own claims. She couldn't change everyone else, but at least she could do something positive that would help to balance out the unfairness she saw around her.

    Second, Jeannie was intrigued by people who didn't live in East Springfield and who didn't look like her. She loved to read about people in other lands.

    Third, knowing how Jesus treated people, she says she had a "sporadic Christian zeal" to do the same. That "zeal" has been evident throughout her life, not very sporadic. Jeannie works as hard for Jesus as she did for her dad.

    Because of her background, when she was entering her sophomore year at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and a blind student needed a roommate, naturally Jeannie was selected. Becoming more than a roommate and a companion to Georgia Griffith, Jeannie learned Braille and spent many hours helping Georgia with her classes (all the while still working to pay her school bills). The relationship between Jeannie and Georgia continues strong to this day. So it was logical that Bob Graetz and Jeannie Ellis would not only join together as husband and wife but that we would end up in Montgomery, Alabama, a white pastor and his wife from the North serving a Negro congregation in the South in the middle of a totally segregated society—so totally segregated that every time we conducted a worship service or had church members in our home, we were violating the law.

    Maybe those critics were right. Perhaps we were intruders and a threat to the fabric of their society. But we had not come to Montgomery on our own. We were here because God had brought us here and our story is really the story of God at work in the world and in our lives.

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Table of Contents

Preface 9
1 Another Bomb! 13
2 Montgomery, 1955 21
3 Trinity's New Pastor 39
4 The Decision That Changed Our Lives 56
5 Exposed 70
6 The Opposition Escalates 92
7 A Circle Of Love 111
8 Victory 124
9 Violence 136
10 Into The Future 149
Index 157
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