This new arrival on the city's attractions scene -- which takes visitors on a three-hour coach bus tour of numerous and important urban landmarks -- opened earlier this year, and I was overdue for the experience.
Man, was it ever a great day to finally get on the bus!
Today's tour included several friends met during nearly 20 years of living in the city, one of my professional mentors and her family, a client and his son, and other V.I.P. passengers including a former Atlanta mayor and the city's District Two councilman.
The tour headliner/special guest: U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who represents the Georgia district in which I reside.
What a treat it was to hear the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient's first-hand accounts of Atlanta and Civil Rights history woven into the excellent tour narrative provided by the experience creator and weekly host, Tom Houck. At 11 a.m. the bus embarked from The King Center and passengers were quickly immersed in Atlanta's story as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement.
Organized in eight sections with three stops, a typical tour includes Houck's in-person storytelling and a mix of video presentations featuring other Atlanta icons including Ambassador Andrew Young, Julian Bond and Valerie Jackson, among others. During today's special tour, Houck shared the mic with Lewis as honorary "fact checker" and narrator who shared his own memories along the ride.
The first tour section includes some house-by-house/building-by-building details about the streets surrounding Auburn Avenue (where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got started and was later laid to rest). I found it fascinating to learn specific offices, night clubs, markets, churches and other landmarks provided the venues for big decisions (i.e. the choice to march in Selma) and moments (selection of SCLC leadership) in the movement.
It is also amazing to see the progress made in and around Sweet Auburn, which has come a long way since my early visits to the city during the 1990's, and I can't wait to return to try the new restaurants and historic markets in the area.
A dose of Olympic history arrived during the tour's second section, which focused on City Hall and the first black Atlanta mayor, Maynard Jackson, elected during the 1970's and re-elected as the city presented and won its bid to host the 1996 Olympic Games. Houck and Lewis also recalled Muhammad Ali's first professional fight held in Atlanta after the boxer's ban for opposing the Vietnam War.
Meandering through downtown and the campuses of Atlanta's collection of historic black colleges (the third tour segment), our group made its first stop at 234 Sunset, the home where the King family resided before MLK Jr. was assassinated.
On the front steps and lawn, Houck shared details about his many visits to the home, where he, then a twentysomething, got a job as Dr. King's driver and where the King children affectionately nicknamed him "Uncle Tom" during a game of catch in the front yard.
On a more somber note, Lewis and Houck explained that in the week following Dr. King's murder in Memphis, the home hosted Vice President H.H. Humphrey, Jackie Kennedy, several heads of state and Senator Robert F. Kennedy only months before he was assassinated in Los Angeles (Lewis was in the Ambassador Hotel on that fateful night).
Civil Rights Tours Atlanta provides its second tour stop at a Vine City neighborhood shopping center surrounded by several dining destinations including the original Paschal's (an updated version now operates a few blocks closer to downtown) and the Busy Bee Cafe.
I marveled at the early 1900's residential architecture and the campus buildings at Clark Atlanta University, and learned about The Herndon Home and Atlanta Student Movement for the first time.
On our trek further south to see South-View Cemetery (the original resting place for MLK Jr.), passengers learned the lyrics and sang along to several gospel and/or protest songs.
Later tour views included more gorgeous red brick homes with huge lawns, each juxtaposed as neighbors to the Atlanta Federal Prison built in 1902. We also passed Oakland Cemetery and the original mattress factory where MLK Jr. briefly worked as a young man.
Similar to our stop at 234 Sunset, when participants disembarked from the bus at South-View, Lewis and Houck shared somber details from Dr. King's funeral, pointing out pock marks on his crypt (where King Sr. now rests) from vandal bullets fired at its marble.
I highly recommend Civil Rights Tours Atlanta for locals, visitors and anyone interested in an excellent, thorough and entertaining look at Atlanta history. In less than a year of operation, Houck's team hosted more than 3,000, a number that's sure to increase in 2016. Admission includes the three-hour tour and access to the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
And for Georgians fortunate to reside in his district, if you're heading to Washington, D.C., be sure to contact Lewis' office in advance for access to the U.S. Capitol and White House tours.
Photos by Nicholas Wolaver