Jean Graetz, white civil rights supporter in Alabama, dies at 90

Dec 19, 2020 Travel News

Jean Graetz, white civil rights supporter in Alabama, dies at 90

Jean Graetz, one of the few whites in Montgomery, Alabama, to participate in the town’s civil rights movement in the 1950s – pushing forward as she faced flat tires, obscene phone calls and to multiple attacks – died Wednesday at her home in Montgomery. She was 90 years old.

The cause was lung cancer, said Kenneth Mullinax, a friend of the family. She died just three months after her husband, Robert, with whom she had partnered in her civil rights efforts.

“Bob and Jeannie were just one of those couples, like Romeo and Juliet,” Mr. Mullinax said. “One could not survive without the other.”

The couple arrived in Montgomery in 1955 after Mr. Graetz, a newly trained Lutheran pastor in Ohio, was assigned to a predominantly black church. Black Lutherans were rare in Alabama, and it was even rarer for a white minister to preach to them, let alone live in their neighborhood like the Graetzs did.

Although Mr Graetz headlined the couple, preaching to his flock every Sunday, Ms Graetz has played an equal role behind the scenes, organizing events and making connections with members of the civil rights movement of the city.

“My mom didn’t like watching them as a team,” her daughter Carolyn Graetz Glass said in a phone interview. “She was happy to let our father shine. But there was no Bob without Jeannie and no Jeannie without Bob.

Rosa Parks, a neighbor of them, used a room in the church, Trinity Lutheran, to hold local NAACP chapter meetings. When Ms Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a separate bus, Ms Graetz was among the women who began planning what turned into a year-long boycott of the city’s public transport. . The boycott would propel Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who has become its leader, into international spotlight.

While her husband used his chair to spread the latest news on the boycott, Ms Graetz immersed herself in endless organizational tasks, such as arranging childcare, preparing lunches, and aligning talks between boycott leaders and the suite of reporters who descended on Montgomery. An empty lot behind the Graetz house was used to contain the many cars loaned to the bus boycott by supporters.

Whites who worked with black congregations were already walking a fine line in Montgomery, enjoying limited exemption under “the same social calculation that allowed doctors to visit a brothel in a medical emergency,” the historian wrote Taylor Branch in “Parting the Waters: America in the Royal Years, 1954-1963. “

The reaction of the white community for violating these limits was immediate and fierce. Ms. Graetz has received dozens of threatening phone calls. She found sugar poured into the gas tank of their car and the tires went flat.

In August 1956, while the couple were with Ms Parks in Tennessee at Highlander Folk School, a civil rights training center, a bomb exploded in their front yard. Five months later, another bomb hit their home, smashing windows and smashing a door, this time as they slept inside with their newborn son, David. Another much larger bomb did not explode; a neighbor who had been trained in explosives in the military came to help him disarm.

Ms. Parks also came and helped Ms. Graetz sweep up the broken glass while Mr. Graetz dealt with the police. Several suspects have been arrested. An all-white jury acquitted them.

The Graetzs, without flinching, returned directly to their civil rights work.

“There are some nice fuzzy liberals, and then there are the Graetzs,” Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and author of “The Rebel Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” (2013), said in an interview. “This is not a one-off resolution. To do what they did, you have to do it every day. “

Mr. Graetz was given a new assignment at a church in Ohio in 1956. He declined the offer. But he couldn’t do the same two years later. The couple returned north and Mr. Graetz served in a series of churches in Ohio and Washington, DC

But the Graetzs returned to Montgomery on several occasions, often with their children – they eventually had seven – including the last leg of Selma’s march to Montgomery in 1965 in support of the Voting Rights Act.

They also became active in civil rights and other movements in Ohio. Their first arrest – but not the last – was in 2000, when they blocked a parking lot as part of an LGBTQ rights protest in Cleveland; they were later arrested after participating in similar protests in Washington and Indianapolis.

“They have always taught us how to protect those who are harassed and harassed,” said their daughter Meta Ellis, who with his wife runs an LGBTQ rights organization in Montgomery.

Jean Ellis was born on December 24, 1929 on a farm in East Springfield, Pennsylvania, near the state border with Ohio. His parents, Marshall and Marian (Smith) Ellis, were farmers.

In addition to her daughters, Mrs. Ellis and Mrs. Glass, Mrs. Graetz is survived by two other daughters, Diann and Katherine Graetz; two sons, David and Jonathan Graetz; four sisters, Ruth Warner, Lola Mitchell, Kathleen Iamaio and Mary Maxwell; 26 grandchildren; 17 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandson. A son, Robert S. Graetz III, died in 1991.

Ms. Graetz met her husband at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, where she was studying elementary education and he was studying theology. They married in 1951. When he graduated that same year, two years ahead of her, and received her first preaching assignments – Los Angeles, then Montgomery – she left school for the to follow.

After the Graetz’s return to Montgomery in 2005, she returned to school to complete her education, attending Alabama State University, a historically black university. She graduated in 2015.

The couple, often dressed in color-coordinated outfits of their choice, have become a staple of the Montgomery activist community, helping to lead the State’s National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture. ‘Alabama.

In 2018, a handwritten note from Ms Parks documenting their friendship was auctioned. Mr. and Mrs. Graetz, never rich, bought it for $ 9,375. They immediately donated it to the university.

“Sacrifice is something they’ve done their whole life,” said the couple’s friend Mr. Mullinax. “So it doesn’t really surprise me that they sacrifice themselves financially at the end of their lives. He ties it all together in an arch.