Personal Stories of the Real Rosa Parks

Ed Gordon speaks with the Rev. Robert Graetz, former pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Ala. Graetz lived across the street from Rosa Parks during the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s, and shares his personal stories about her.

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ED GORDON, host:

Reverend Robert Graetz is former pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama. During the civil rights movement, Reverend Graetz lived across the street from Rosa Parks. His church's congregation was predominantly black and the reverend hosted NAACP meetings that Mrs. Parks often attended.

Reverend ROBERT GRAETZ (Trinity Lutheran Church): Well, she was one of the very first people we met in Montgomery outside of our congregation. She was the adult adviser to the NAACP youth council, which met in our church. And we got to know her well very early on. A wonderful lady, quiet, dignified, respectful, and yet full of that kind of quiet courage that you rarely see in anybody.

GORDON: When you think about just her demeanor, it is sometimes hard to imagine that this is the woman who essentially sparked a movement that this nation has never and perhaps the world has never seen?

Rev. GRAETZ: That's correct. In fact, I did not hear who it was who had been arrested and when I called her to find out, she was almost apologetic for having started something. She's just the kind of person who was going to stand up for her rights and the rights of other people and yet did not want to appear to be pushy.

GORDON: For those of us who did not live during that time, give us a sense of how historic that this had to be and how brave a person had to be to even take on the thought of defying a law in Montgomery, Alabama, when it came to race and segregation.

Rev. GRAETZ: It's hard to imagine now, but keep in mind that every aspect of life for African-Americans was totally controlled by European Americans, not just where you lived and where you worked and where you sat on the bus and where you went to school, but everything, even to the point where if white people and black people were approaching one another on the sidewalk, black people were expected to step off the sidewalk and let the white people pass. It was just total domination and total control. And people today just can't understand how that could possibly have been, but it was.

GORDON: Do you recall some of the conversations that you had with other whites--we should note that you are white--during that time and what was said?

Rev. GRAETZ: Well, it was interesting. There were a number of white people who were very supportive of what we were doing. It was a very small minority, but they were there. There were other white people who looked upon what we were doing, since I was the pastor of a black congregation, and looked upon what we were doing as something that was nice for those people, and that was about the way they put it. `Isn't that nice that you're helping them?' There was a substantial minority of people who were of the Ku Klux Klan mind-set who were angry about anything that anybody did to help black people in those days.

GORDON: And, Reverend, what would you like, as we remember this woman and her grand life, people to remember that perhaps we miss in the big picture?

Rev. GRAETZ: The primary thing I would hope people would remember from Ms. Parks' life was her respect. She was respectful in herself but she also respected other people. And if we can learn to respect one another, then we'll move toward that beloved community that Dr. King always talked about. That was his dream.

GORDON: Yeah, indeed. And I hope that we get there in my lifetime and certainly in our children's. Reverend, thank you so much for being with us.

Rev. GRAETZ: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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