Tom Houck, MLK’s family driver, retraces old routes with a new civil rights tour

Civil Rights Tours, Atlanta visits 20-plus sites and incorporates original interviews with civil rights leaders and archival photos
Tom Houck before a mural at the MLK Jr. National Historic Site

Photograph by Todd Burandt

Tom Houck can still recite the Sunday lunch menu from memory: “Fried chicken, ham, greens, coleslaw, squash, cornbread, and sweet tea,” he ticks off, between snaps of gum, in his trademark chainsaw-in-a-gravel-pit rumble. We’re idling outside the midcentury redbrick house with the white trim at 234 Sunset Avenue, the home of Martin Luther King Jr., where Houck had that meal 50 years ago.

Houck, who moved from Boston to Florida as a teen, was expelled from his Jacksonville high school for taking part in a 1965 march in Selma that was organized in response to Bloody Sunday. After continuing to volunteer for civil rights causes, he arrived in Atlanta in 1966 to help with Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter registration efforts. On his first day here, the shaggy-haired 19-year-old was waiting for a lift in front of the SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue when King spotted him and invited Houck home for lunch. Over the meal, Houck and the Kings bonded over their Boston connections (Martin and Coretta met when she was attending the New England Conservatory and he was at Boston University). Later that afternoon, Coretta lamented the family’s need for a driver. And so for the next nine months, Houck drove the four King children to classes at Spring Street Elementary and occasionally ferried Dr. and Mrs. King around town. Weekly salary: $15 (later raised to $25).

Tom Houck with Coretta Scott King
Tom Houck with Coretta Scott King

Photograph courtesy of Tom Houck

From the chauffeuring gig, Houck joined the staff of SCLC, helping Hosea Williams organize marches and protests, and soliciting volunteers for the Poor People’s Campaign. He was arrested in Birmingham while working for the SCLC. One of his toughest assignments: coordinating traffic flow during the funeral in Atlanta following King’s 1968 assassination. Since then Houck has parlayed his tenure as one of the youngest SCLC staffers—and one of few whites—into a career, consulting on political campaigns and corporate diversity initiatives, and appearing on WGST radio and The Georgia Gang. He’s even been an Atlanta magazine contributor.

This month Houck draws on his personal history and wide circle of friends with a new endeavor: Civil Rights Tours, Atlanta. Organized in partnership with Atlanta Movie Tours, it begins and ends at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. First stop: the King family residence in Vine City. In addition to 20-plus sights, the three-hour tour will include taped original interviews with John Lewis, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and others, along with archival photos and footage. Houck plans to eventually serve only as a narrator for the video portion, after training retired fellow foot soldiers of the movement to serve as tour guides.

“These places are not included in any Atlanta tour guide,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why not do this, and do it with the stories of the people who lived it?’”

Houck hopes to introduce civil rights landmarks often overlooked by visitors and locals alike. These sites include South-View Cemetery in southeast Atlanta, founded by former slaves in 1886. Striding across the asphalt toward the graves of MLK’s parents, he pauses to point out the inscription on the tomb of Martin Luther King Sr., better known as “Daddy King.” It reads: “I love everyone. Still in business, just moved upstairs.”

Of course, given Atlanta’s predilection for demolition, many of the “landmarks” on the tour exist in memory only. On Auburn Avenue, Houck points to a Jamaican restaurant, formerly Henry’s Grill & Lounge, a spot Dr. King loved. “He would order the pork sandwiches and pig’s ears.”

Houck’s talks are liberally sprinkled with anecdotes of King’s smoking and drinking and penchant for pulling pranks. But his goals for the Civil Rights Tour are lofty: “I want this to be a view of Atlanta that’s never been seen before, an experience that puts Atlanta on the map as the citadel of the civil rights movement.”

As we make our way up the street, the condition of the boarded building at 334 Auburn Avenue irritates Houck. The address formerly served as the SCLC headquarters. “It’s a shame and a disgrace,” he says. “Outside of the Oval Office, there were probably more important decisions made that affected this country in the 1960s in that SCLC conference room than any other place in the world.”

Pulling up to 407 Auburn Avenue, Ebenezer Baptist’s old educational building, Houck’s mood brightens as he remembers a short trip with MLK on January 15, 1968. “That’s where we celebrated Dr. King’s last birthday. Xernona Clayton organized a surprise party. We told him he was coming to an SCLC staff meeting. I drove him down the street from the SCLC offices, where we had cake and punch waiting. No alcohol was served. Not in Daddy King’s church—no way!”

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This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue under the headline “Driving Dr. King.”