Bus boycott veteran shares first-person view of history|
by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs
1/21/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Guided by faith, several charismatic pastors led more than 50,000 blacks who stood up to oppression in Montgomery in the 1950s. One of those pastors was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Another is the Rev. Robert Graetz, guest speaker at the Dr. King celebration Tuesday at Maxwell Chapel 2.
The Rev. Graetz noted that it was significant that people of different faiths and races gathered Tuesday in a house of worship to honor Dr. King. The civil rights struggle was faith-based, and the people were motivated by God's will, he said.
Religious leaders in the 1950s were not united in their support of equality.
"There were lots of faith leaders, but not all proclaimed the same message," the Rev. Graetz said. It was common during the 1950s to hear sermons preaching that one group is superior to the others, and that God intended for these differences to remain.
Black people were starting to realize that what Jesus said was different from what white people were saying.
"Black Christians taught white Christians how to be Christian," he said.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott reflected this revelation.
"God has something different for us," the reverend said.
From 1955-1958 the Rev. Graetz was pastor of Montgomery's Trinity Lutheran Church, which had an entirely black congregation. There he met Rosa Parks, and he and his wife, Jean, became involved in the bus boycott. He was the only white member of the Montgomery Improvement Association's executive committee, led by Dr. King.
This faith-based movement was strong, in part due to Mahatma Gandhi's influence on Dr. King. Gandhi's nonviolent approach to resistance was a powerful tool for Dr. King.
The Rev. Graetz recounted the story on Jan. 31, 1956, when someone bombed Dr. King's house, the parsonage at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. In retaliation, his neighbors formed a mob on Jackson Street and took up guns, bats, bricks and knives to fight.
Dr. King diffused their anger, saying that he and his family were not harmed. He asked them to put down their weapons and go home peacefully.
"(Dr. King said,) 'We're not going to treat white people the way they treat us,'" the Rev. Graetz said.
Dr. King told the crowd that nonviolence should dwell in their fists, hearts and heads. The nonviolence movement took deep roots that day, he remembered.
The Graetz family also was the target of violence. To prevent the reverend from driving blacks during the bus boycott, people slashed his tires and filled the gas tank with sugar.
The violence escalated in August 1956 while he and his family were at a conference with Ms. Parks in Tennessee. Upon returning home, he found his house bombed.
While he and his wife cleaned up the mess, Ms. Parks swept up glass in the kitchen.
The Graetz house was bombed again Jan. 10, 1957, one of two houses and four churches attacked that night.
The first bomb thrown at his house did not explode, despite the 11 sticks of dynamite.
"It would have leveled the entire neighborhood," the Rev. Graetz said. A second, smaller bomb did ignite, but did not cause much damage, nor did it trigger the larger one. "Someone with a great deal more power prevented the explosion," he said of God's will.
Such a strong show of force could not deter Dr. King and the civil rights movement.
"Our children are the beneficiaries of his dream," he said.
Dr. King knew that one day people of different faiths and races would come together, just like they did on Tuesday at Maxwell Air Force Base, with mutual respect.
"But the job is not done," he said. "This is a dream we are still fighting for."
The Rev. Graetz addressed the audience, and encouraged all to build bridges ending discrimination and segregation.
"The work is still going on, and we need all of you to take part. I cannot be the person God intends me to be until you are the person God intends you to be," he said.
Col. Brian Killough, the 42nd Air Base Wing commander, said the community needs to be thankful for the efforts of people like the Rev. Graetz, and continue to fight against discrimination.
"Because of your example, we take up the mantle and move forward," he said.
Tuesday's celebration also included a skit by Maxwell Elementary School students Alyssa Boudreaux, Katirah Johnson and Adam Peck discussing Ms. Parks and the start of the bus boycott.
Music included Laron Washington singing "We Are One" and a duet from Aretha Neal and Tyler Perdue.
Dr. King lived his faith by leading others "to live their lives in such a way that justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," said Chap. (Lt. Col.) Phillip Guin.
The chaplain, using a line from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, encouraged the audience to pause and remember the greatness of the man and the power of his witness.