Jean Graetz, White Supporter of Civil Rights in Alabama, Dies at 90

Jean Graetz, one of the few whites in Montgomery, Alabama who participated in the city’s civil rights movement in the 1950s – despite faced slashed tires, obscene phone calls and multiple bombings – died Wednesday at her Montgomery home . She was 90 years old.

The cause was lung cancer, said Kenneth Mullinax, a family friend. She died just three months after her husband Robert, with whom she teamed up in her civil rights endeavors.

“Bob and Jeannie were just one of those couples, like Romeo and Juliet,” said Mullinax. “You couldn’t survive without the other.”

The couple came to Montgomery in 1955 after Mr. Graetz, an Ohio-trained newly minted Lutheran minister, was assigned to a predominantly black church. Black Lutherans were rare in Alabama, and it was even more rare for a white minister to preach to them, much less live in their neighborhood like the Graetzes.

Although Mr. Graetz was the couple’s headliner, preaching to his flock every Sunday, Ms. Graetz played an equal role behind the scenes, organizing events and building connections with members of the city’s civil rights movement.

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

Rosa Parks, one of her neighbors, used a room in the church, Trinity Lutheran, to hold meetings of the local NAACP chapter. When Ms. Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her place on a segregated bus, Ms. Graetz was among the women who began planning a year-long boycott of the city’s public transportation. The boycott would lead pastor Dr. Put Martin Luther King Jr. in the international spotlight.

While her husband used his pulpit to spread the latest news about the boycott, Ms. Graetz delved into the endless organizational chores, such as organizing childcare, preparing lunches, and arranging interviews between the leaders of the boycott and the entourage of reporters who came to Montgomery. The many cars that sympathizers had lent to the bus boycott were on an empty lot behind the Graetzes’ house.

White people who worked with black communities were already walking a fine line in Montgomery, granting limited exemption under “the same social calculation that allowed doctors to go to brothels in a medical emergency,” historian Taylor Branch wrote in Parting the Waters: America in the royal years 1954-63. “

The reaction of the white community to the violation of these boundaries was immediate and virulent. Mrs. Graetz received dozens of threatening calls. She found sugar poured into her car’s gas tank and the tires slashed.

In August 1956, a bomb exploded in their front yard while the couple were with Mrs. Parks in Tennessee at the Highlander Folk School, a civil rights training center. Five months later, another bomb hit their home, shattering windows and breaking a door, this time while they were sleeping with their newborn son David. Another, much larger, bomb failed to explode. A neighbor who had been trained in explosives in the army came over to disarm him.

Ms. Parks also came by and helped Ms. Graetz clean up the broken glass while Mr. Graetz took care of the police. Several suspects were arrested. A pure white jury acquitted them.

The Graetzes never flinched and immediately returned to their civil rights work.

“There are nice fuzzy liberals and then the Graetzes,” said Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and author of “The Rebel Life of Ms. Rosa Parks” (2013), in an interview. “It’s not a one-time solution. To do what they did, you have to do it every day. “

Mr. Graetz received a new assignment from a church in Ohio in 1956. He declined the offer. But two years later, he couldn’t do the same. The couple moved back north, and Mr. Graetz served in a number of churches in Ohio and Washington, DC

But the Graetzes returned to Montgomery several times, often with their children – they ended up having seven – including for the final leg of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Suffrage Act.

They also became active in civil rights and other movements in Ohio. Her first – but not her last – arrest came in 2000 when she blocked a parking garage as part of a protest for LGBTQ rights in Cleveland. They were later arrested after participating in similar protests in Washington and Indianapolis.

“They have always taught us to protect those who are bullied and apprehended,” said their daughter Meta Ellis, who runs an LGBTQ rights group in Montgomery with her wife.

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

In addition to their daughters Mrs. Ellis and Mrs. Glass, two other daughters, Diann and Katherine Graetz, Mrs. Graetz survive. 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. One 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 his first preaching assignments – Los Angeles, followed by Montgomery – she left school to follow him.

After the Graetzes returned to Montgomery in 2005, she went back to school to complete her degree. She attended Alabama State University, a historically black college. She graduated in 2015.

The couple, often dressed in color-coordinated outfits of their choice, became a staple of the Montgomery activist community and helped direct the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture in the state of Alabama.

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

“Sacrifice is something you’ve done all your life,” said Mr. Mullinax, the couple’s friend. “So I’m not surprised that they would end up making financial sacrifices at the end of their lives. It ties everything together in a bow. “

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