September 20, 2020
A Path for White Activists // A Celebration of the Life of The Rev. Robert (Bob) Graetz
Impossible. One simply could not grow up in Atlanta without knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement. We were the epicenter of it all. From the earliest of ages, I knew that something very special had happened in my hometown.
First Grade. I was in the class of the first/only black teacher at my elementary school, Ms. Ellington. Throughout the year, she’d told us stories about the Movement. I couldn’t get enough. With every word, she cultivated in me a belief that people of faith can truly change the world. While I doubt any of these encounters could have been planned/approved by the administration, from time to time old activists would stop by. I was amazed at their stories. Through it all, I wondered if there were any good white people involved. One day I got the courage to ask. The response astounded me then…as it does now…”Without the help of white people we would have never made it.”
Fast forward. I sat in a college classroom. As everybody around me dozed off, I listened intently. Though I’d heard many of the stories before, I wanted to hear them again. It seemed like new beauty found me every time I heard them. As the teacher closed out her lecture, I knew there was something missing. Before she could dismiss the class, I raised my hand. “Did you leave out the pivotal white activists?” Her response was cold and direct. “There were no white activists in the Movement.” I knew she was wrong.
Emory. In the midst of one of my graduate degrees in theology, I started to delve into the stories of white movement veterans. I was determined to learn as much as I could. I felt like their words could guide me into the future. One certainly did.
The Reverend Bob Graetz. Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama was an all black congregation. I doubt Graetz knew what to expect when he was called as their pastor…and I doubt they knew what to expect when they called him. Though people/particularly black people questioned his ability to pastor a black congregation, he went anyway. Once the people saw his courage, deep trust was built. From the inception of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Graetz was one of it’s earliest leaders. Though people/particularly black people questioned having a white person so close to the leadership of the Boycott, Graetz led anyways. On multiple occasions, the Graetz family were victims of conastant violence/including two bombings of their home. Regardless, Graetz kept pushing. Eventually, they succeeded. Not long after, Graetz moved on to other churches. Though his prominence quickly waned, no matter his location he stayed involved in the Movement. Throughout it all, Graetz never took orders…he simply did what he felt like God was calling him to do.
Since. For decades, Graetz was forgotten. Any student of the Movement, quickly realizes that many of these white veterans are inconvenient heroes. In time, Graetz took control of his own story and wrote numerous books…all of which have inspired me tremendously. There were some who said that a white veteran shouldn’t lend prominence to their story. Graetz just kept on writing. I’m so glad he did. In what would be one of his last fights, Graetz courageously led Lutherans in his denomination to demand full inclusion of LGBT people. There were many people black/white/LGBT who told him that he shouldn’t be doing this work. He didn’t care. He could hear the voice of God calling him forward. In time, Graetz got to witness the realization of full inclusion. Though Graetz was never afraid to listen/collaborate, he was most interested in knowing God. Such independence is what made his life so meaningful.
Though he died earlier today (at 92), Graetz has left white activists with some powerful lessons. We must work for God alone…in a spirit of love for each other. It is our job to figure out where God is going and help lead the way. Independent people are able to do independent things (like support black and LGBT equality). It is our job to remain independent enough to be able to do the work that we are called to do. There is nothing wrong with collaboration. There is something wrong with domination. One does not need permission from anybody to fight for justice. We are responsible only to the dictates of our conscience. One cannot be shamed or forced to become an activist. Love is the only true formation of an activist. White activists occupy a peculiar place in the Movement…sometimes viewed as a traitor to their own race and other times viewed as a usurper of another. While such a dichotomy may seem insurmountable, Graetz showed us that it is the only way of salvation.
NY Times Obituary: