Juliette Morgan: Great Non-Fictional Character

For several years, the minister at Trinity had been Nelson Trout, a Negro Lutheran who felt somewhat excluded as the head of a minuscule congregation outside the mainstream of Negro religion.

On leaving Montgomery in 1955, he failed to anticipate the social friction that his new personage would cause – mostly because he assumed that his successor would be a Negro. Lutheran policy changed …and when a white minister named Robert Graetz finished his seminary training that year in Ohio, he found his missionary assignment list…posted to Trinity Lutheran down in Alabama. Dutifully, Graetz had personal stationery printed up bearing a biblical quotation: “And the angel of the Lord spoke unto Philip saying ‘Arise, go toward the South.'” Along with his wife and their two toddlers, Graetz headed for Montgomery, where they became the first of Trinity’s white pastoral families to live in Trout’s parsonage among the Negro parishioners.

The Graetzes discovered instantly that the social efforts of the new location were severe. Previously, Montgomery whites had allowed Trinity pastors to live among them and preach to Negro Lutherans, on much the same social calculus that allowed doctors to visit a brothel in a medical emergency. Now that they were living in the brothel, however, the Graetzes forfeited their modicum of acceptability. Local whites shunned them everywhere from the laundromat to the supermarket.

The Graetzes almost never got to laugh at such absurdities. There was too much tension. Besides, the daily ostracism caused too much hurt within the family for its excesses to be funny. Not all the hostility came from whites. Many of the Trinity’s members had been happier with Negro pastors like Trout. Some of them said out loud that they did not need a white man to tell them how to live. At first, even those who tried hardest to welcome them were saddled constantly with awkwardness, as nothing came naturally to the Graetzes. In most situations outside the Lutheran worship service, they did not know what to eat, say, or do. Drawing on their best natural defense, they became sincere – too sincere, even by the standards of the clergy. At sessions of the Montgomery Human Relations Council, Reverend Graetz met most of the others who made up the town’s handful of white liberals…Like him, they were all sincere, and some were timid, or brilliant, or damaged. Juliette Morgan, the kindly city librarian, was a recluse by night who shut herself up in a dark house with her mother.

After Rosa Parks, and the subsequent Holt Street meeting, which was the start of the organization of the Montgomery bus boycott:

A few days after the Holt Street mass meeting, one of the teachers at a Methodist missionary school near Nagpur, India rushed outside to investigate a bellowing noise that had pierced the early morning stillness. In the hut next door, he found his colleague James Lawson still in a fit of shouting and clapping and foot-stomping. Such joyous abandon was almost as alarming to the teacher as the violence he had feared, because he knew Lawson as the essence of the cerebral personality – a man who had worn spectacles since the age of four, whose superior manner and precise articulation smothered any hint of emotionalism in his character. Yet now, even after Theopolis burst through the door, Lawson was still dancing, and could only point to a story in the English edition of the Nagpur Times about how thousands of Negroes were refusing to ride segregated buses in a small American city.

This was the beginning, cried Lawson. This was what he had been dreaming about, what he had gone to prison for, what he had come halfway around the world to find at its source, only to discover that Gandhism without Gandhi was dissolving into power politics and petty quarrels. Lawson was overwhelmed by the ironic news that the spirit of the Mahatma was breaking out only six or seven hundred miles south of his home in Ohio. He sensed immediately that he would come to know M.L. King, who was described in the Nagpur Times as a man of exactly Lawson’s age, race, and profession.

In Montgonery, Juliette Morgan, the reclusive city librarian, watched the empty buses roll for a few days and then penned a letter to the Montgomery Advertiser. “Not since the First Battle of the Marne has the taxi been put to as good use as it has this last week in Montgomery,” she wrote. “However, the spirit animating our Negro citizens as they ride these taxis or walk from the heart of Cloverdale to Mobile Road has been more like that of Gandhi than of the ‘taxicab army’ that saved Paris.” Morgan declared that the bus boycotters had “taken a lesson from Gandhi, and from our own Thoreau, who influenced Gandhi.” She recommended that her fellow white citizens read Edmund Burke’s speech “Conciliation with the American Colonies,” and warned them against “pharasaical zeal.” “One feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days, the most important in her career,” she concluded.

These last words confirmed her status as something of a ninny, even among those white people who admired the grandeur of her learning. Who of sound mind could write that a shift by Negro maids in their common mode of transportation was more important than all the past glories of Montgomery? Morgan’s letter brought down upon her a prolonged harassment by young people who threw rocks through her windows, insulted her on the streets, and played tricks on her in the library. Her flighty insensitivity only provoked them to do worse. A little more than a year later, she would be found poisoned in her house, an apparent suicide. By way of explanation, whites would stress her emotional vulnerability or alleged mental problems, while Negroes remained certain that she had been persecuted to death on account of the “Battle of the Marne” letter.

From Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch.

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