Atlanta History: Civil Rights thru the eyes of Tom Houck


Originally posted to the AndTopherToo Atlanta blog.

Five years ago I was introduced to a boisterous Grant Park neighbor named Tom Houck. My [then fiancé] and I began to run into him often, usually at our next door neighbor's house or our favorite local pub, Augustine's. When Tom asked what we wanted as a wedding gift I thought for a moment and said "a personal tour of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta from you". 

For those of you who don't already know this conspicuous Atlantan: Tom was the driver for the King family from 1966 until Martin's assassination in 1968. From there he joined the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership conference. In the early '70s Tom worked with John Lewis and Julian Bond on a project encouraging minorities to vote. His involvement with politics, combined with a long standing interest in journalism, grew into a career in radio and TV. Since 1980 Houck has been an outspoken, liberal, staple of the Atlanta media. This month he launches his own Civil Rights bus tour. The tagline: "taking you to to the places where history was made by those who made history".

I am someone who is passionate about history, Atlanta and sharing interesting stories. So when Tom told me he was finally starting this company I insisted on being involved. Lucky for me, Tom didn't refuse. 

The first time I ran through the route with Tom, Ron and AB I was left speechless. They took me to beautiful but decaying parts of Atlanta that I'd never seen yet were only a few miles from my home. These are places that changed the course of American history. The more they showed me and the more they talked, the more I realized I had some research to do before I was going to fully understand Atlanta's role in the American Civil Rights Movement. With that in mind I've compiled a timeline. Hopefully it will help others to organize their thoughts and understanding about a few of Atlanta's quickly decaying but incredibly historic neighborhoods. 

A timeline of America and Atlanta leading up to the Civil Rights Movement

  • 1861 - 1865 Civil War 
  • 1868 - 14th Amendment makes African Americans full citizens of the United States and prohibits states from denying them equal protection or due process of law. 
  • 1870 - 15th Amendment guarantees the right to vote will not be denied or abridged on account of race. Simultaneously, Tennessee passes a law that clearly aims to defy the new amendment. This segregation law also known as "Jim Crow" mandates the separation of African Americans from whites on trains, in depots and wharves. It becomes a catalyst for the rest of the South to quickly do the same. 
  • 1893 Atlanta's Wheat Street is renamed Auburn Ave to sound more cosmopolitan. 
  • 1896 Ruling of Plessy v Ferguson. In 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket from New Orleans on the East Louisiana Railway. The Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were constitutional. The finding contributes to 58 more years of segregation in the south.
  • By 1900 African Americans are banned from white hotels, barber shops, restaurants, theaters, schools and other public accommodations. 
  • 1905 Alonzo Herndon, son of a slave owner and slave, who rose through Atlanta's African American community with his prestigious upperclass, white-only, Crystal Palace Barber Shop, founds Atlanta Life Insurance Company.
  • 1906 Race Riot in Atlanta.  25 black Atlantans killed, 70 injured. Including George "Union" Wilder, a former union soldier who had become post master for South Atlanta. "Union" was shot by police officers while defending his home with a muzzle loading rifle. This riot marks the beginning of black businesses and families consciously moving to the Fourth Ward for safety via consolidation. White families begin to move out.
  • By 1910 Ten of the eleven former Confederate states have passed new constitutions or amendments that deprive most blacks the right to vote. Those who can't vote are not allowed to serve on a jury and are often taken advantage of.
  • 1912 Odd Fellows Building is constructed on Auburn Ave. It is first large-scale, black-owned, black-operated, multiple use complex in Atlanta (includes an auditorium). 
  • 1913 Atlanta Baptist College becomes Morehouse.
  • 1920 Atlanta Life Insurance building is constructed on Auburn Ave. 
  • 1924 Booker T Washington High School opens as the first African American high school in Georgia. 
  • 1928 Atlanta Daily World is founded. The newspaper devotes itself to coverage of black educational institutions, businesses, prominent persons, churches and other news of significance.
  • 1929 Atlanta University Center is founded.
  • 1936 John Wesley Dobbs, Maynard Jackson's grandfather, starts a voter registration drive. In 10 years he registers 20,000 minority Atlanta voters.
  • 1936 Techwood Homes opens as the nation's first federal public housing project. 
  • 1941 President Roosevelt issues executive order banning discrimination against minorities in defense contracts. Herndon Homes public housing is built in Vine City. 
  • 1947 Jackie Robinson becomes first African American to play major league baseball.
  •  1948 President Harry S. Truman desegregates the armed services. Atlanta's police force integrates but the 8 officers are still required to use the locker rooms at the Butler Street YMCA.
  • 1954 Brown v the Board of Education declares segregated schools unconstitutional. This overturns the 1896 "separate but equal" ruling of Plessy v Ferguson.
  • 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  • 1956 Fortune magazine hails Auburn Ave "richest Negro street in the world". 
  • 1960 Lunch counter sit-in by four college students in Greensboro, N.C. begins and spreads through the South. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded. John F. Kennedy is elected president. 
  • 1961 Atlanta schools integrate on the same day Dobbs dies of a stroke.
  • 1963 (August): March on Washington. MLK Jr delivers his "I have a dream" speech. 
  • 1963 (September): Birmingham church is bombed killing four African American girls attending Sunday school.
  • 1963 (November): JFK Jr is assassinated.
  • 1964 (July): Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 
  • 1964 (October) MLK Jr is awarded Nobel Peace Prize.
  • 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.
  • 1968 MLK Jr is assassinated in Memphis.
  • 1979 Maynard Jackson, Dobbs’ grandson, becomes mayor of Atlanta.


Listen to the NPR Marketplace story about Tom Houck's Civil Rights Tour.