If you join Tom Houck on his Atlanta Civil Rights Tour bus, he’s quick to tell you that he was once a driver for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s family, but also a “helluva organizer” who went to jail about 20 times during the Civil Rights Movement.
More than a decade before his prison stints for his efforts with voter registration and school desegregation, and long before giving civil rights tours in Atlanta, Houck was flouting social norms as a white six-year-old by using the “colored restrooms.” By 12 he had proudly picked up his first picket sign in solidarity with the Woolworth Counter sit-ins. By 18, he was expelled from high school for marching in Selma, Ala. as part of a voting rights campaign.
Shortly after, Houck moved to Atlanta, where he met the King family and was soon joining them at their lunch table. He became the family driver and, as such, met the who’s-who of Atlanta’s civil rights movement, developing profound respect for the city’s centrality in the struggle for justice.
This respect continues to impact Houck today, for whom Atlanta’s streets speak of the powerful history made along them. After years of informally telling others about the city’s civil rights sights, he said to himself, “I should be doing a civil rights tour.”
And so he did. In 2015, Houck began Atlanta’s Civil Rights Tours and since has led them for more than 8,000 people.
The side of Houck’s tour bus reads “Taking you to the places where history was made by those who made history.”
And the tour does just that.
It begins at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site Visitor Center and continues around Auburn Avenue, passing Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King co-pastored with his father. The bus slows at the former Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headquarters, where activists mapped out the March on Washington and developed other civil rights campaigns.
“He had no windows in his office and just one picture... of Gandhi,” Houck recalls of Dr. King’s SCLC workspace. “It was a not a big office. But big ideas came out of it.”
Driving past the Wheat Street Baptist Church, home to the Negro Voters League, Houck tells of a deal cut there between civil rights leaders and the mayor to install Atlanta’s first black police officers in 1948.
As the tour continues, Houck points out the headquarters of Atlanta-based companies, like
Houck sprinkles his commentary with tidbits not found in the history books, reminding tour-goers that the movement’s well-known figures also had very human moments. His anecdotes range from the humorously trivial to the deeply serious. Stopping at the King family’s former home, Houck reflects that it was there that Coretta Scott King gave him his first afro-inspired “perm” and where she ultimately would learn of King’s assassination.
Through the various stops, Houck weaves Dr. King’s message of economic and racial equality, for which the civil rights pioneer was made a martyr, reminding audiences that this message continues to have resonance today.
“I hope it inspires audiences to go out and do more,” Houck reflects, “because this battle is a long way from over.”
“People should know the history of where they live," he continues. “If they don’t know the history of where they’re coming from, they won’t know where they’re going. It’s absolutely imperative that people know who was in this town, how it evolved and who was involved in that movement to make sure that Atlanta was a city ‘too busy to hate.’”
One step in learning that history is taking the tour. After all, as Houck says with a laugh, “You’ll know a lot more after the tour than you know now.”