The Doc Project

Atlanta through the eyes of Martin Luther King's personal driver

In 1966, Coretta Scott King hired a 19-year-old named Tom Houck as the family's driver. Houck now shows people landmarks that are significant to the civil rights leader's story.

In 1966, Coretta Scott King hired a then 19-year-old Tom Houck as the family's driver.

Tom Houck outside MLK's last residence in Atlanta on Sunset Avenue. (Stephen Smith/CBC)
Listen to the full episode27:30

This episode originally aired in August 2016, with host Casey Mejica.

One day can change the course of your life. In the case of Tom Houck, that day took place in 1966. 

Back in 1966, Houck was a 19-year-old from Massachusetts. He had moved to Atlanta to work for the organization led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Though he was white, Houck was thoroughly invested in the cause. From the age of six or seven, Houck remembers always having a "very strong sense about equality" and the injustices of a racist society.

I worked in the civil rights movement and was arrested about 20 times from 1965 until 1970.- Tom Houck

Houck had been offered a job answering mail, but by the end of his first day in Atlanta he was offered an altogether different — and life-altering — job.

King's family needed a driver, and for reasons that remain a mystery to Tom, King's wife, Coretta Scott King, thought he would be perfect. For the following nine months, as well as acting as an assistant to King, Houck became the family's driver.

This 1966 file photo is the last official portrait taken of the entire King family. From left are Dexter King, Yolanda King, Martin Luther King Jr., Bernice King, Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King III. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, File)

"It's pretty remarkable," says Houck. "I think Daddy King [Martin Luther King Sr.] thought Coretta may have lost her mind asking me to drive the kids around here, a white boy in 1966 taking four black kids to school." Houck would drive King Jr. two to three times a week, and was responsible for taking the kids to school regularly.

"I had several tickets which Daddy King took care of while I was driving them in that nine-month period and most of them were going through imaginary red lights, by white cops wondering what I was doing with black kids," says Houck. "When they found out I was working for Martin Luther King, they backed off a lot."

Tom Houck at MLK's original burial site, now the graves of Martin Luther King Jr.'s parents. (Stephen Smith/CBC)

Dr. King's place in history is so essential, so revered, it's hard to believe he was just a regular guy, doing regular guy things like buying lottery tickets at the corner store, playing basketball in the backyard and driving an Impala. But that's the side of King that Houck knew very well.

Houck was working for one of King's initiatives, the Poor People's Campaign, in Knoxville, Tennessee, on the day the leader was assassinated, April 4, 1968. 

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last speech, some students in the U.S. are poring over his message and asking: What has really changed since? 6:05

Houck remembers that day vividly. "We heard somebody yell, 'Dr King's been shot, Dr. King's been shot!' And I said, What? I mean, this is ridiculous. And so I went to go call — I used the office in the church we were at to call the King family house to find out what happened and there were now reports, it was on TV and everything that King had been shot at the Lorraine Motel... Then we heard that he had died, and I called the King family home immediately. Mrs. Lockhart, who was the housekeeper for the King family, had told me that Coretta was on her way to the airport... So I wound up deciding I was going to come back to Atlanta."

"I got back to Atlanta probably around midnight on that night of April 4. And immediately, you know, staff congregated and we [were] all sort of, sort of in a state of shock."

Doc was gone! I don't think I slept for four days.- Tom Houck

Houck now gives guided tours of the Atlanta he got to know while driving Dr. King and his family around the city, visiting landmarks like King's birthplace, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was the associate pastor and his father was the senior pastor. CBC Montreal journalist Stephen Smith took the tour and spoke with Houck in his documentary, Driving Dr. King. Scroll to the top of this page to listen to this episode.

About the producer

Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith won a silver medal in the history category of the 2015 New York Festivals World's Best Radio Programs for his Ideas documentary about the making of Dr. Martin Luther King's 1967 Massey Lectures. A feature interview with Harry Belafonte for that program led to a spin-off Ideas documentary about the singer/activist's friendship with Dr. King that first aired on Martin Luther King Day in 2015.