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The Accidental Wheelman Of Martin Luther King Jr.

Tom Houck, standing in front of a mural at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.
Todd Burandt
Courtesy of StoryCorps
Tom Houck, standing in front of a mural at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.

In the mid-1960s, Tom Houck left high school to join the civil rights movement. After meeting Martin Luther King Jr. at an event, Houck decided to volunteer for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

So, Houck made his way to Atlanta.

"I was standing outside waiting for somebody to come pick me up," Houck says, remembering the day he arrived in Atlanta. "All of a sudden, Dr. King drove down the street. He said, 'Tom, you're here.' "

As Houck recalls, the reverend was with his wife, Coretta Scott King, who promptly invited him back to their house for lunch. Houck accepted, ate with the family and even went out to the front yard for a game of football with their children.

Then, Houck says, Coretta Scott King interrupted the game to ask him a question.

"Do you have your driver's license?" she asked — and Houck said yes. And so she had another question: "Would you mind taking the kids to school tomorrow morning?"

"Fine," Houck said.

And just like that, Houck began his stint as the Kings' family driver. For nine months, Houck drove Martin Luther King Jr. around Atlanta, though King liked to drive himself often, too.

"But he was a terrible driver," Houck says. "And he turned WAOK radio in Atlanta on full blast."

Tom Houck (right), with friend Angelo Fuster on a recent visit with StoryCorps.
/ StoryCorps
Tom Houck (right), with friend Angelo Fuster on a recent visit with StoryCorps.

That wasn't the only puzzle presented to Houck. There were also the cigarettes.

"Dr. King was a chain smoker, all right? But Coretta did not like the cigarettes," Houck says. "So when we would come back to the house, first thing Coretta would do, she would check Dr. King's pockets. So he started giving me his cigarettes."

In the midst of the struggle, Houck found himself a co-conspirator in King's vice. And with good reason: Houck idolized the reverend for his virtues.

"Martin Luther King was my hero," he says. "He was a decent, kind human being to me and treated me not as an 18- or 19-year-old, but as a man. And it was a phenomenal experience for me because, at this point, Dr. King had won the Nobel Peace Prize, and he would talk to me about the movement."

That was a huge thing for Houck, who at that point still hadn't finished high school. Instead of the classroom, his education came in the space of the car — and it was Martin Luther King Jr., the man sitting in the seat behind him, who became Houck's greatest teacher.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall and Andrés Caballero.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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