MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The Rev. Robert Graetz, a white man who helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the city’s Black residents, died over the weekend. Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum confirmed the civil rights pioneer’s passing.
“Today, we honor the life and legacy of Rev. Robert Graetz and his lifelong selflessness and his constant fight for a better future for everyone,” the museum stated. “May we continue to follow his example.”
Graetz and his wife, Jean, moved to Montgomery in 1955 where he became the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, an all-black congregation.
The move came not long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. Her refusal and arrest led to an organized boycott of the line by its African-American riders that lasted a year and ultimately led to its desegregation.
The Graetzs and Parks were friends and neighbors and it didn’t take long before he was working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight to desegregate the buses.
The museum added that Graetz’s decision to join the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, in which he was its white board member, put his family in danger.
He and his family were often targeted for harassment, surveillance, tire slashings, and in early 1957 their home was fire bombed by the KKK.
“He was not deterred in his fight for justice, freedom, and equality for all people,” the museum added.
“Our hearts are heavy as we mourn the loss of a remarkable civil rights and social justice leader,” said Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial Center Director Tafeni English, adding he “was a staunch and unwavering ally in the fight against white supremacy, and a cherished friend of Rosa Parks, Julian Bond and the SPLC.”
Graetz left Montgomery for another pastoral assignment, but English said he visited often for civil rights gatherings and pilgrimages before ultimately returning to the city in 2005. He founded the Graetz Symposium, an annual conference, in partnership with The National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture.
In his later years, the pastor fought Parkinson’s Disease, which affected his speech but didn’t keep him from his mission to preserve history.
In 2018, he and his wife spent nearly $10,000 to win a New York auction that included some of Parks’s handwritten notes. Those papers are now housed at Alabama State University.
"Today, we continue the march, in honor of his life’s work, and inspired by his grace, compassion and fortitude,” English said.
Funeral plans have not yet been publicly announced.