History-making civil rights activists speak at NMSU

March 19, 2012 by Janet Perez, NMSU News Center

In 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama signaled the start of the modern civil rights movement in the United States. Some of the organizers of the boycott, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, became nationwide symbols of African-Americans’ struggle for equality.

Two other boycott organizers who are rarely mentioned are the Rev. Robert Graetz and his wife, Jean. A close friend of Parks, Robert Graetz was the white pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, an African-American congregation in Montgomery, when the boycott began.

The Graetzs’ will talk about their experiences and the current state of race relations at a lecture organized by New Mexico State University’s College of Business. The free event takes place Thursday, March 29 at 7:30 p.m. in Guthrie Hall, Room 100 on the NMSU campus.

“The College of Business takes seriously such issues as diversity and ethics,” said Steven Elias, head of the management department. “Given the Graetzs’ history and experiences, they can speak to these issues with great authority.”

The presentation will begin with a condensed version of a PBS documentary on the Graetzs. Following the documentary, the couple will discuss race, reconciliation and their personal experiences in that historic movement.

Robert Graetz began his work at Trinity Lutheran Church in 1955, and soon became secretary of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group created to organize and support the boycott. The boycott was sparked by Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Graetz encouraged his congregation to support the boycott.

“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,’” Graetz said in a 2011 interview with PBS. “So I spent the whole day just driving people around, picking people up on the street, whatever.”

Such overt support by a white family of the boycott specifically and the civil rights movement generally did not sit well with the Ku Klux Klan.

“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,” Jean Graetz told PBS.

Eventually, their parsonage was bombed twice — once when the entire family was inside asleep. Fortunately, no one was injured.

The Graetzs left Montgomery in 1958, but they continued their work in the civil rights movement. Robert Graetz’s book, “A White Preacher’s Memoir: The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” was published in 1999. Today, the couple hosts the annual Graetz Symposium on Human Rights and Reconciliation at the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture at Alabama State University.

For more information, contact Steven Elias at selias@nmsu.edu

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