MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Rev. Robert S. Graetz was virtually alone among Montgomery’s white ministers in supporting the bus boycott that helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
That’s when the bombings began.
As the white pastor at an all-black Lutheran church in Alabama in the 1950s, Mr. Graetz was just 28 years old when he became a recurring target for the Ku Klux Klan.
“The noise awakened us,” Rosa Parks, who was a neighbor of the Graetz family, wrote of a 1957 attack.
In the brief, handwritten document, Mrs. Parks described decades later how she and her husband went quickly to the Graetz family’s home after the bombing. The area had been roped off by the police.
“They said we could not enter. Rev. Graetz spoke to me and said, ‘Come in Brother Parks and Mrs. Parks,’” she added. “We went and offered to help. We began sweeping the floor and picking up.”
Her notes, thought to have been prepared around 1990, when Mrs. Parks was still working as an activist, were part of an archive long controlled by Mrs. Parks’s lawyer and eventually caught up in a bankruptcy proceeding.
After learning of the document from a friend, the Graetz family, including Mr. Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, purchased it for $9,375 at an auction last month in New York, where it was offered as part of a larger sale that included an unpublished chapter from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
The family plans to donate Mrs. Parks’s notes about the bombings to Alabama State University. The historically black university already houses Mr. Graetz’s papers and what is thought to be the largest trove of legal records from the bus boycott.
Recently, Mr. Graetz, 90, Mrs. Graetz and two of their adult children — Meta and Diann — agreed to an interview at their home near the university campus. Mr. Graetz, who was born in West Virginia and educated in Ohio, is in hospice care and sometimes struggles to recall events. But during the interview, he spoke vividly about his memory of Mrs. Parks and the experience of being targeted by white supremacists in the South.
The transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Reverend, your first full-time assignment in the clergy was in 1955 to Trinity Lutheran, a majority-black congregation in Montgomery. Did you have any sense of how important civil rights issues would be during your tenure?
Robert Graetz: No. I had been involved already in the civil rights movement, but the movement itself had just barely gotten off the ground at that point. At Capital University, in Ohio, I had joined the N.A.A.C.P. and organized the race-relations club on campus.
Here, I couldn’t get my hair cut by a black barber. I couldn’t eat a meal at a black restaurant. Anything that would have dealt with relationships across racial lines was absolutely forbidden in those days.
The first month we were here, I attended my first meeting of the Montgomery Council on Human Relations. From that point on, my whole life was relating to black and white relations.
How quickly did the threats begin?
Jeannie Graetz: As soon as the Klan and the Klan-type people knew that we were involved.
Robert Graetz: It was less than a month.
The Ku Klux Klan first bombed your home in the summer of 1956. What do you remember from that attack?
Jeannie Graetz: We were at Highlander Folk School [the social justice training complex in Tennessee].
Meta Ellis, daughter: And Rosa Parks had come with us, so we were already good friends.
Robert Graetz: The phone rang at midnight. A reporter got ahold of me and said, “Have you heard that your house has been bombed?” I said, “No, I hadn’t heard that.”
As the people learned about our being bombed, and we were packing up and everybody was heading home, Mrs. Parks gathered with us. The whole campus gathered around in a big, huge circle and sang, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
There was a second bombing the next year. And that time you and your family were at home and in the house.
Robert Graetz: There were bombs that were aimed at four different African-American churches and two homes: the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s home and our home. The dreadful thing about that bombing is that David, our son, had just been born.
Jeannie Graetz: Nine days old.
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Robert Graetz: The thought of tiny babies having bombs thrown at them in the middle of the night was just incredibly difficult to deal with. My mother, my poor mother, she had come down to help take care of the babies, and she was just devastated that these terrible people would just throw bombs at our babies.
Jeannie Graetz: I had always figured that a lot of the harassment we got was just trying to intimidate us. They wanted us to go back north because we were outsiders who came to “make trouble.” They did things to our car, threw rocks at the house, telephone calls, letters.
The first bomb that night had 11 sticks of dynamite and a container of TNT. There was no reason that it didn’t go off. They had prepared seven bombs, so they came and threw this extra bomb, and it landed up by the house — the other one landed on the sloping driveway — and we figured the second one was supposed to detonate the other.
So it was 2 o’clock in the morning, and we got woken up. It was a shock. It broke all the windows and door and lifted the roof up. It made a big mess.
Meta Ellis: There’s no missing a bomb explosion. I think I was about 3 years old, probably closer to 4. But I’ll never forget it.
There were arrests, and acquittals, by all-white juries. How did those acquittals shape your views of the South and what had happened to you?
Jeannie Graetz: They arrested seven men from Selma, and they had all the evidence.
Robert Graetz: It was a solid case against those seven men, seven white men. They were arrested. They were put on trial. They were all turned loose, which was part of a long pattern. Any white man who was charged with any kind of crime against a black person was freed.
Because you were a white person supporting black people in Montgomery, the jury lumped you in the same way, even though you were the victims of a crime.
Robert Graetz: If anything, a white person who was helping a black person was seen as worse than the black person.
Did the bombings, and seeing this violence up close in your own home make you question whether segregation could be broken?
Robert Graetz: All of us in the N.A.A.C.P. and other groups like that, all of us were determined that it may take a long time to get there, but we were definitely going to keep on going until we got to what our goal was, and that was a society that was honorable in all directions. I knew eventually we would get there. I was young enough. I was just starting, so in my own life, I knew we had a good chance of breaking through.
The country knows Rosa Parks as a civil rights heroine. What was she like as a neighbor?
Robert Graetz: Very, very, very sweet.
Meta Ellis: She was one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet, and children loved her. We flocked around her. She was someone we loved to hang out with.
Robert Graetz: She was just very quiet and dignified. She was kind of always in the background, the kind of person who would keep doing the work she had to do and make sure other people were busy doing their jobs, too.
Jeannie Graetz: We met her very early. We were glad to meet her and find out things about her. But we were all surprised when what she did changed the world.
Did you know until recently that she had written about the bombings?
Jeannie Graetz: We didn’t know anything about it.
Why did you decide to purchase the document?
Robert Graetz: The fact that there was some special document that had been written by one of our dearest friends. We said, if there’s something available to remember her by, we need to get it.
Meta Ellis: It belongs here in Montgomery.
Diann Graetz, daughter: We had no idea if it would really be possible. It was more of a, “It sure would be nice if we could do that,” and then one of us had the idea to see if we could raise money through extended family and friends. They were expecting it to go between $25,000 and $35,000, and we were like, “Oh, we hope not.”
Meta Ellis: If there were more people bidding on it, it would have been harder.
Diann Graetz: It was one of those things that was meant to be.
Reverend, what do you make of the landscape in Alabama and across America today?
Robert Graetz: Everything is totally transformed and totally out of control. I think this is one of the most dangerous periods of time I’ve ever been through in this world, and who knows what the possibilities are?
What’s the solution?
Robert Graetz: The solution is going to have to come in very small pieces. Any time you can find two or three or a half dozen or 20 people who are ready to find a way to build a little bit of a semblance of order, we need to grab at that and begin building some order here and there. That’s it. I think we’ve got a long, long road.
Do you see any reason for optimism?
Robert Graetz: Any time I see two people getting together and smiling.
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