An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:

Dexter Ave. Baptist Church parsonage, where the Rev. Martin Luther King and his family lived in Montgomery.

Imagine starting a day at the pulpit where Martin Luther King preached “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery,” and ending with a conversation with former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and two leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Our group is starting to experience a kind of historical (and sometimes emotional) whiplash.

SMU’s civil rights pilgrims have been talking for days now about the importance of place in understanding the civil rights movement.  But when you bring people into the equation who lived through the movement, overlapping both time and place, it packs a wallop.

We have followed the route of the 1965 voting rights march along U.S. 80 into the state capitol of Montgomery, where Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus in 1955 sparked a successful bus boycott and molded King into a leader in the emerging civil rights movement. It’s a beautiful city of rolling hills, and the trees are budding out early – just as they are in Dallas. On at least two occasions we have slowed at the top of a hill that gives the same view of the shining capitol dome that those marchers saw as they approached George Wallace’s seat of power in 1965.

So think of this as a foldout postcard from the Montgomery leg of the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage – a collection of images focused around visits to the sites of famous civil rights victories and defeats, and walking in the shoes of the men and women who drove the movement. We have been:

  • Lingering in King’s office in the basement of the Dexter Ave Baptist Church, running our fingers along the edge of his desk
  • Standing behind King’s pulpit in the Dexter Avenue sanctuary, looking across the sanctuary to imagine it crowded with thousands of people as the bus boycott heated up
  • Standing on South Jackson Street, looking up the street to the parsonage where King lived with his young family, to the Harris family home where the Freedom Riders were hidden from angry mobs, and to the hotel where performers like Cab Calloway would entertain in the Jim Crow era
  • Standing on King’s porch, looking at the crater where a bomb landed on Jan. 3, 1955; standing in his kitchen, where he made the commitment to pursue the campaign for civil rights, no matter what the cost
  • Sharing a conversation between former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and his friends, the Rev. Robert and Jeannie Graetz, a white couple who defied local tradition and bombs to work in the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The Graetzes are elderly now, and they have devoted their lives to the cause of civil and human rights.  They moved to Montgomery in the mid-1950s to pastor a black Lutheran church, and enthusiastically led their congregation’s participation in the civil rights movement.  It was a dangerous position for whites to take in those days, and the Graetz home, too, was bombed by people infuriated by the bus boycott and the overall pursuit of equal rights for black Americans.

Graetz discovered the civil rights movement in college, joining the NAACP when he was just “a 20-year-old kid,” in his words.  He had no qualms about accepting a pastoring job at a black church in the Deep South when he got out of seminary, but the reality of Jim Crow Montgomery, with its completely divided society, was a much bigger hurdle than he expected.

“We didn’t realize what segregation was,” Jeannie Graetz explained.  They made the decision to live as their congregation lived, at least to the extent that they could.

“We went to movies in black theaters,” Jeannie Graetz said, her husband adding that the black theater managers never charged them for their tickets because doing business with them would have been a violation of the strict segregation laws.   And once the bus boycott began, Graetz took his turn driving in the fleet of car pools created to get Montgomery’s black citizens to work without having to ride the buses.

Graetz downplays the pressures of those days and credits his wife for enduring it well: “There were times when the burden got heavy,” he concedes. “But it never failed that this lady would cheer me up and get me going again.”   There were a few times when King had doubts, too, he said: “He knew he was going to die.”

The Graetzes left Montgomery in fall 1958 to pastor another black congregation in Ohio, but spent their lives in passionate support of civil and human rights – particularly LGBT issues in their later years.  Even now, when most their age would be pursuing a quiet retirement, the couple is part of the community at historically black Alabama State University. The Rev. Graetz is working with the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture, and Jeannie Graetz is enrolled as a student.

See a slideshow of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

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