Greenville businessman remembers Dr. King’s visit to the Upstate

Dr. King is served food by Rev. Jesse Jackson's grandmother. photo courtesy of the files of Joe F. Jordan Photography

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Greenville  on April 30, 1967, nearly a year before his death. His visit was prompted by the treatment of black workers at the Claussen Bakery and the economic disparities they faced.

“They didn’t think they needed no hours,” said Fred Garrett whose business, Watkins, Garrett and Woods Mortuary, is across the street from the bakery. “They didn’t think they needed no vacation. It was like you were just there.”

During the 1960s, black bakery workers complained about the disparity in wages and not being allowed to advance to supervisory positions. A worker complained to Rev. Jesse Jackson, a trusted confidant of Dr. King, which led to his visit.

“He was defending and fighting for and trying to get people to do more for themselves and to demand more,” Garrett said.

Garrett is now 93 and still working at his funeral home, which is one of the oldest black owned businesses in the city. He says he remembers the visit well because his friend, A.J. Whittenberg, asked him to help drive Dr. King around the city.

“I had a car and a business, so we were riding around, carried him around, and we thought it was an honor to do that,” Garrett said.

Garrett drove Dr. King to his speech at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium that was hosted by the Greenville Christian Leadership Conference.

“He was telling them that they could achieve things that they wanted to achieve if they get together, and get organized, and work together,” Garrett said about the speech.

Garrett says King’s visit helped improve the conditions at the bakery and got more people involved in the movement.

“We were trying to build a future in this community,” Garrett said.

The Greenville NAACP constructed a historical marker in front of the Claussen Bakery building last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s visit to Greenville.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became a federal holiday in 1986. South Carolina was one of the last states to recognize the holiday in 2000. Greenville County was the last county in the state to declare the day a holiday and first celebrated it in 2006.