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Early civil rights supporter Jean Graetz dies in Alabama

December 16, 2020 GMT
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FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, file photo, Gov. Robert Bentley, left, greets Robert Graetz, center, and his wife, Jean, before a screening of Selma at the AMC Festival 16 in Montgomery, Ala. Graetz openly supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was a Lutheran clergyman of a Black church in Montgomery starting in 1955. Graetz, the only white minister to support the Montgomery bus boycott, died Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. He was 92. (Albert Cesare/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP, File)
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FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, file photo, Gov. Robert Bentley, left, greets Robert Graetz, center, and his wife, Jean, before a screening of Selma at the AMC Festival 16 in Montgomery, Ala. Graetz openly supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was a Lutheran clergyman of a Black church in Montgomery starting in 1955. Graetz, the only white minister to support the Montgomery bus boycott, died Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. He was 92. (Albert Cesare/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP, File)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Jean Graetz, an early white supporter of equal rights for Black people in Alabama at the start of the civil rights movement, died early Wednesday, a family spokesman said.

Recently diagnosed with lung cancer, Graetz died at home less than three months after the death of husband Robert Graetz, the only white minister to openly support the Montgomery bus boycott, said Ken Mullinax, a friend who announced her death on behalf of the family. She was 90.

“She was one of the finest people I ever knew,” Mullinax said. “I could just cry right now.”

Jean and Robert Graetz moved to Alabama in 1955, the same year Black seamstress and activist Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus, sparking a yearlong boycott that often is considered the start of the modern civil rights movement.

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A young pastor at the time, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to national prominence during months of protests that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.

In a state where racial segregation was the law and relatively few white people supported change, Jean and Robert Graetz were friends with Parks, King and his late wife Coretta Scott King, said Mullinax. Known as “Jeannie” to many, Jean Graetz was a “full partner” with her husband in openly, actively supporting civil rights, he said.

“She was at the vanguard of the birth of the modern civil rights movement,” said Mullinax, who also is the spokesman at historically black Alabama State University, where Jean Graetz graduated with an education degree five years ago at age 85.

Graetz, the minister of the majority-Black Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church in Montgomery, was the only white clergyman in the area to support the boycott. He and his wife faced harassment, threats and bombings as a result.

The parsonage where the couple lived was twice targeted by bombs, once when they were away and again in 1957, not long after the boycott ended, in a wave of attacks on civil rights leaders and churches.

Speaking earlier this year in an interview with a Lutheran publication, Jean Graetz said their activism was linked to the idea of “beloved community,” a vision of love and justice that King sometimes mentioned.

“There is no such thing as race,” she said. “Scientists know this; we all have the same DNA, we’re all brothers and sisters, and we need to act like this is true.”