Did the 'dream' die or did it endure?

Martin Luther King Jr. was many things to many people: minister, activist, visionary. 

But Tom Houck, former personal assistant and driver for King, saw a side that was often unseen. 

In his first visit to Penn State on Jan. 18 as part of the university’s MLK Commemoration Week, Houck shared his behind-the-scenes story highlighting the commemoration’s theme of “When Silence Becomes Betrayal” with a crowd of students, faculty, staff and community members at Foster Auditorium.

“What are you doing for others?” 

It is this question that Dr. King would be continually asking us if alive today, according to Houck.

At the age of six, Houck opened his personal pursuit for civil rights over a bullying incident and has not stopped his efforts since. He became a personal aide to King until his death in 1968 and he continues to give bus tours of historic civil rights sites in Atlanta today. 

It was during one of these bus tours last spring when Houck was connected with students from the Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA), one of the event’s sponsors. 

“I need to get more involved with the opportunities that PLA and Schreyer give to us as students, and I wanted to really be able to experience a person who is living history,” sophomore Schreyer Scholar Krista Grennan said. “I can’t believe at just 12 years old he was trying to break some of those racial barriers.” 

It was also at the age of 12 that Houck picketed for the first time in support of the sit-in movement across the South and felt called to get fully immersed in the ongoing struggle for social change. 

Whereas many people only mention Dr. King in reference to his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, Houck had a hand in organizing the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, and participated in strategic retreats with King and other leaders of the movement. 

“He set out to Montgomery not to be ‘Martin Luther King, Jr.’ He went there to preach and to be in Alabama, where his wife was from,” Houck said. “It was that one night, that one speech at Holt Street Baptist Church [to address the Montgomery Bus Boycott] that he became Martin Luther King, Jr. to the world.” 

During their time together, Houck admired the way King “strategically took on the haters” and used television to create a picture that even the white middle class would see and want to join. 

Despite the opposition that King endured from whites and blacks alike during his lifetime, Houck said that King remained optimistic because he knew most people believed what he believed but just didn’t say it the way they understood. 

“In a society where we are facing less blatant forms of racism – it’s more microaggressions – and as someone who is not a target, but an agent of oppression, I need to use my privilege to try to help empower others that are less privileged than I am as a white woman,” Grennan said. “Hopefully someday we won’t have to have talks like this to acknowledge that there still is racism in this country.” 

Houck predicts many opportunities within the next few years that he hopes will move the next generation to action. 

“We’ve got a long way to go to make this the melting pot that Dr. King dreamed of,” Houck said. “But we’ve come a hell of a long way during my lifetime.”

Last Updated February 15, 2017