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Rev. Robert S. Graetz Jr.: 1928-2020

A ‘White Preacher’ Leader in Race, Reconciliation in the Civil Rights Movement


In an obituary published by The New York Times, Capital University alumnus Rev. Robert Graetz Jr. was called “an unbowed voice for desegregation” for his tireless work for civil rights alongside his friend, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Graetz died Sept. 20 at the age of 92.

Majoring in social science and earning a bachelor’s degree from Capital in 1950, he went on to graduate from Evangelical Lutheran Theological Seminary (which today is Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University) in 1953.

Graetz and his wife, Jean Ellis Graetz ’53, became neighbors of Rosa Parks in the mid-1950s when the Lutheran Church sent him to Montgomery, Ala., to pastor an all-black church. They aided the Montgomery Bus Boycott, driving blacks to and from work during the boycott, and drawing bomb attacks on his home, threats and anonymous phone calls, slashed tires, and other intimidation tactics led by the Ku Klux Klan.

“I became aware of race relations … in 1948,” Graetz said in a 2007 interview for Capital’s alumni magazine. “I had a sociology course with Professor Karl Hem at Capital and founded the Race Relations Club that year. I also joined the NAACP.

“But we didn’t know how awful racial discrimination was until we got (to Montgomery. That was a major shock to us. There had been violence that surrounded the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the killing of Emmett Till in 1955, but we weren’t prepared for it when we got there.”

The Graetzes went on to march alongside King, work for school desegregation, lead civil rights pilgrimages, and speak on topics of race relations and civil rights for seven decades.

In his memoir, Graetz wrote, “We feel God has given us the unique privilege of standing with one foot in the Black community and one foot in the white. It may not be comfortable, but that is where we are. And until God tells us it is time to slow down, we intend to keep pressing ahead with our witness.”

In 2019, the work of Bob and Jeannie Graetz was one of the stories featured in “Capital in the Sixties,” a student-led immersion class documentary project about Capital University from 1965-1975.

Watch an introduction to the Graetz story.

Watch the entire “Capital in the Sixties” film.

Read the interview with Bob and Jeannie Graetz from the 2007 issue of CAPITAL magazine.

Montgomery Advisor article