Robert S. Graetz Jr. was born in Clarksburg, W.Va., on May 16, 1928. His family, with a lineage of Lutheran clergymen, typecast him early as a future minister, with his paternal grandfather addressing him in German at seemingly every opportunity and often speaking to him at an early age about a life in the church.
Growing up in the West Virginia of the Great Depression and World War II eras, the boy attended segregated schools and, as he acknowledged in his memoir, most likely referred to Black people as “colored people.”
He considered a career in medicine but enrolled at Capital University, in Columbus, Ohio, as a pre-theological student. It was in the late 1940s at Capital that he became interested in civil rights, after preparing a sociology course term paper that explored inequality in education. He soon founded a race relations group for the campus and joined the Columbus chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., taking the streetcar to meetings.
He married Jeannie Ellis, with whom he had seven children, in 1951. She survives him. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
The couple moved to Alabama in 1955 and lived in Montgomery for several years — Mr. Graetz was even a groomsman to Fred Gray, Mrs. Parks’s lawyer — before the pastor took a position at a church in Ohio. Before the family moved there, Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, brought them a gift of a silver serving tray. Even in recent years, the tray remained in a place of honor at Mr. Graetz’s home in Montgomery, where the couple lived in semiretirement and routinely met with student groups and participants on civil rights pilgrimages.
“We feel God has given us the unique privilege of standing with one foot in the Black community and one foot in the white,” he wrote in his memoir. “It may not be comfortable, but that is where we are. And until God tells us it is time to slow down, we intend to keep pressing ahead with our witness.”
Before Mr. Graetz first went to Alabama, church officials, he wrote, “made me promise to focus on being a pastor and not to start any trouble in Montgomery.”