SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — A few months short of the 50th anniversary of the historic Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, one of the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) took center stage for Wittenberg University’s annual Martin Luther King Day Commemorative Convocation. He encouraged those in attendance to “accept personal responsibility” for ending injustice of all kinds, quoting Biblical passages from the books of Micah and Leviticus to illustrate his points.
The Wittenberg Series-sponsored event, which was free and open to the public, took place in historic Weaver Chapel before a large crowd of Springfield community members, Wittenberg students, staff and faculty members in full academic regalia. The convocation included a musical performance by Imani, the Wittenberg gospel choir, and remarks by Bill Steinbrink, interim president of the university, Ken Bladh, provost of the university, Carolyn Perkins, vice president for student development, and Lamarr Lewis, president of Concerned Black Students.
The Rev. Robert Graetz was the only white member of the MIA, which was headed by then 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., and he was a close friend of Rosa Parks, the African-American woman whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white person sparked the boycott and a society-altering Civil Rights movement. A Lutheran pastor educated at Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and now a resident of the Buckeye state, Graetz and his family served Trinity Lutheran Church, an all-black congregation in Montgomery. His support for their battle against racial prejudice and societal injustice made him a marked man, as three bombings of his personal residence would attest.
“Everyone knew this was historic,” said Graetz, who offered neighbors and church members rides to work in order to participate in the bus boycott. “People walked to work and taxis picked up people and charged them 10 cents for rides across town.
“The people of Montgomery, Ala. knew they had made history, and they had laid claim to God’s ‘Year of Jubilee’.”
The reference to God’s “Year of Jubilee” comes from chapter 25 in the Book of Leviticus, and it was a concept Graetz used as a parallel to the Civil Rights struggle that took flight during the 1950s but continues to this day. He considers 1955 to be a “Year of Jubilee” for the people of Montgomery, Ala., as many were finally freed from the bondage of slavery and injustice and granted at least the seeds of liberty. God decreed another “Year of Jubilee” 50 years later, which in this case would be 2005.
“A decision had to be made,” Graetz said. “We, through sacrifice, had to lead God’s people to their ‘Year of Jubilee’.
“Where are we now? Have we dealt with the problems? Is there still racism in our hearts?”
Graetz encouraged self-examination to answer those questions. He said that white members of American society must admit blame, not that they had personally participated in slavery, but that they have benefited from it. He added that all members of society need to educate themselves about racial issues and then take personal responsibility, much as the “nameless people of Montgomery, who walked to work on Dec. 5, 1955, and all through the rest of that year,” he said.
“They knew bad things could happen to them, but they did what they knew was right and acted on their convictions.”
Graetz described King as a champion of all injustice, not just racial causes, evidenced by his groundbreaking stand against the Vietnam War in the early 1960s and his establishment of a “Poor People’s Campaign.” He called for a “beloved community,” borrowing from the Bible, much as Graetz did 50 years later at Wittenberg.
“God’s invitation … is for all of us to come together in a beloved community in which we value one another,” Graetz said.
For more information about the Wittenberg Series, a university program that brings an array of cultural and intellectual programs to campus annually, contact Gwendolyn Scheffel, Series coordinator, (937) 327-7918.
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