By: Robert S. Graetz Jr.
Reviewed by: Derryn E. Moten
NewSouth Books, 2006
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often noted that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” but as scholar and philosopher Cornel West has subsequently observed, “An examined life is hard.” Robert S. Graetz’s A White Preacher’s Message on Race and Reconciliation fulfils the dicta of both King and West. As the only white minister belonging to the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) board during the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Graetz’s latest memoir is a follow-up to his 1998 A White Preacher’s Memoir: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Those of us born in the wake of the “movement,” people I call “Civil Rights babies,” remember the sepia imagines of marches and riots even if we were too young to fully comprehend the whirlwinds that precipitated them. And an assumption often made whenever a new memoir is written by a key civil rights insider is that the reading public might ascertain facts unbeknownst to most general historians. Too often these memoirs disappoint, but sometimes their authors are revealingly forthright. Examples of the latter include King lieutenants Ralph Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Andrew Young’s An Easy Burden, and now, Robert Graetz’s A White Preacher’s Message.
As the white pastor for the black Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, that the Klan bombed the Graetz’s home is not surprising or that fellow whites considered Robert and Jeannie Graetz race traitors was par for the course. It is not even surprising given Red baiting dating back to the 1930s that the FBI sought Robert Graetz’s cooperation as an informant, and while perhaps then understandable, it is now disconcerting to learn that he hid his relationship with the bureau from fellow MIA board members. True, in 1955, the FBI did not have the nefarious reputation gained in its voyeurism of King. And then, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had yet to launch COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program created to monitor Black Nationalist groups. But as Andrew Young has written, FBI agents assigned to the South were too chummy with local police to be regarded as “objective or effective in racial cases.” Government efforts to taint movement campaigns for sure produced a rearguard impulse to scrupulously watch one’s ranks. We learn this about Thurgood Marshall in Juan Williams’ recent biography of the late U.S. Supreme Court associate justice.
Robert and Jeannie Graetz have devoted their life together to reconcile communities in our nation along the fissures of race, class, culture, sexual orientation, and religious intolerance. Their work has come with personal joy and personal pain. They continue to heed the mantra of their friend Dr. King: “Injustice tolerated anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”
Derryn Moten is an associate professor of humanities at Alabama State University and Chairman of the Board of the Alabama Writers’ Forum.