Former MLK driver takes the wheel behind new Civil Rights tour
Tom Houck shows off Atlanta's landmarks and lesser-known spots
A boarded-up hotel in Vine City might initially seem like Atlanta's most unlikely tourist attraction. But sit outside the old building with a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., along with a local resident whose dad once ran the gas station next door, and the site now becomes more historically significant than any Ferris wheel, pigskin shrine, or sugar-water museum. Fifty years ago, Paschal's Motor Lodge and Restaurant, once considered the unofficial headquarters of Civil Rights Movement, occupied this building.
The old Paschal's is one of approximately 30 local landmarks on the Civil Rights Tour Atlanta, a three-hour bus tour that launched on March 27. Longtime Atlanta residents serve as tour guides, stopping at popular Civil Rights Movement destinations including Ebenezer Baptist Church, as well as such lesser-known landmarks as King's final residence, located at 234 Sunset Ave. N.W. in Vine City.
The Civil Rights tour is the brainchild of Tom Houck, a 67-year-old activist, personal aide to King, and King family driver. Now a well-known local politico, Houck plans to guide many tours, including a recent press preview that Creative Loafing attended on March 20. His unique perspective combines a broader overview of the civil rights era, along with quotidian details such as MLK's favorite restaurant and preferred corner store. "Dr. King's dry cleaner was down here on the left," Houck noted at one point, gesturing down a street off Auburn Avenue.
Other tour guides include Ron Wilson, head of a fourth-generation family real estate business, and Albert "A.B." Cooper IV, a well-connected film location scout who met many African-American artists and activists at his dad's old gas station in Vine City. President Barack Obama mentioned Cooper's grandmother, activist Ann Nixon Cooper, during his 2008 victory speech.
The tour starts on Auburn Avenue outside the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. It forces visitors out of the museum galleries and into the streets, offering a much-needed link between the storied King Center and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, its contemporary counterpart.
"This is where history was made," said Houck, pointing to a shuttered Auburn Avenue building that once housed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But he also explained why the former SCLC headquarters, and many other buildings in Sweet Auburn, are boarded up today. He said many members of the neighborhood's black elite moved out as the world became less segregated. "It became a victim, unfortunately, of what we did with protests," he said.
The hallmark of Houck's tour is to focus on each site's original significance and lasting social context — even when it's unflattering. The bus stopped at one successful black university, Morehouse College, and traveled past a struggling one, Morris Brown College. At the latter institution, Houck says he hopes for Fountain Hall, the school's 19th-century landmark building capped with a prominent clock tower, to be restored. Another stop includes South-View Cemetery, King's original burial site before his remains were moved to the King Center's famous tomb; his parents still lie at South-View.
A large portion of the tour focuses on Vine City, a neighborhood now featured on TV news more for crime than tourism. Houck, Wilson, and Cooper explained how white suburban kids frequent the South's largest open-air drug market in search of heroin. They also discussed how the Georgia Dome and the new Atlanta Falcons stadium have affected the neighborhood, promising millions in funding to the neighborhoods, but also razing two historic churches.
"We'll see what happens," Houck said dryly.
A few blocks away, MLK's final home stands out as a tour highlight. Unlike his well-known childhood residence, his Vine City house remains vacant and closed to the public. Houck says much of the house's original features remain intact: vinyl slipcovers wrap the furniture and artificial flowers fill the vases. According to Houck, the family would like the feds turn it into another historic site. But the King family, which owns the house, is locked in legal battles. For now, its fate remains unclear.
"The blue Impala is still in the garage," he said.
The sight of an ordinary house on an ordinary street, without park rangers or ticket takers, served as a reminder that now-idolized civil rights heroes were once regular folks who fought for change from their living rooms. Driving around Vine City hammered home that the neighborhood from which King expressed concerns about race and inequality still faces very real challenges today.
The Civil Rights Tour is the kind of history you can't get from an exhibit. These tour guides provide the kind of insight you won't hear in a museum. It's not some pre-fabricated experience. It's a re-creation of the past triumphs and struggles that still shape Atlanta today.