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March on Washington

How George Raveling came to own King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech

The hall-of-fame coach worked security at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington

On Aug. 28, 1963, more than 200,000 demonstrators descended on Washington. Designed to pressure Congress to pass the Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill, the historic March on Washington was the largest protest of its kind in the history of the capital.

The highlight of the march was civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream address, generally considered one of the five greatest speeches in U.S. history. One of the lesser-known stories of that day is how George Raveling, who would become a Hall of Fame college basketball coach, ended up with an original copy of King’s speech.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the march, I recalled a June 2016 conversation in Harlem, New York, with Raveling about how he came into possession of that speech.

A former basketball star at Villanova, Raveling had just turned 26 and was working as a marketing analyst for the Sun Oil Co. The historical twist is that Raveling had no intention of attending the march. The Thursday before the march, Raveling and his best friend at the time, Warren Wilson, were having dinner at Wilson’s home in Claymont, Delaware. Wilson’s father, Dr. Woodrow Wilson, was a prominent dentist in Wilmington.

“He asked us if we were going to go, and we said no,” Raveling recalled. “He asked us why and we gave him a little adolescent excuse, we didn’t have any money.”

Wilson’s father encouraged the young men to go. He let them use one of his cars and gave them some cash. “He said, you youngsters need to be there, because this is something historic.’’

They arrived in Washington Friday evening and got a motel room and walked around the city to get their bearings. During the walk, they happened to run into a march organizer. “He asked us if we were going to the march the next day. We said yes.

“He said, would you want to volunteer. We said, for what. He said, to be security guards. We said yes.” The organizer told the pair to arrive at 9 the next morning.

“We got there at about 8 a.m. The organizer said, ‘we’re going to need extra security at the podium.’ He signed us up to the podium and that was how we got down that strategic security position.”

At 6 feet, 4 inches and more than 200 pounds, Raveling was an imposing figure as he stood near King and other celebrities on the podium. Raveling remembered the maneuvering over who would speak, how long they would speak and the content of their remarks.

“All the speakers were limited to five minutes, and they said that if you violate it, they were going to shut the mike down,” Raveling said. He said the five-minute limitation was why writer James Baldwin did not speak, “because he wouldn’t change his speech; they didn’t want anything that was very inflammatory, they didn’t want to get the crowd out of control.”

Raveling also recalled: “They made John Lewis change his four of five different times” because Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, called on the movement to oppose the Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill because it contained nothing to curb police brutality.

The magical part of the afternoon unfolded as King delivered his speech.

“At the end of the speech, as Dr. King finished and started to fold his speech, as he walked away, I just said — I don’t know why, just impulsively said: ‘Dr. King, can I have that copy?’ And he turned and handed it to me.” — George Raveling

“As King gets toward the close of the speech,” Raveling said, “if you were able to turn the sound up loud enough, you can hear a female voice in the back say, ‘tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream,’ and that was the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson,” Raveling said. “She had been at a lot of the King speeches and demonstrations and she had heard King do it at Selma and Detroit, so she was familiar with it.” At that point, King began to improvise, as Raveling would later discover when he read the hard copy of King’s speech.

“What’s interesting about the speech is that the original intent never included the ‘I Have A Dream’ phase of it, if you see the original manuscript,” said Raveling. “So King, at this point because he was the last speaker, began to ad-lib the ‘I Have A Dream’ part.

“At the end of the speech, as Dr. King finished and started to fold his speech, as he walked away, I just said — I don’t know why, just impulsively said: ‘Dr. King, can I have that copy?’ And he turned and handed it to me.”

Why did he ask for the speech?

“I would love to come up with some really exotic answer. People ask me time and time again. It was just impulse,” Raveling said. “I have no idea why I did it.”

Raveling put the hard copy of the speech in a personally signed autobiography from President Harry Truman that the former president gave to Raveling after his senior year at Villanova.

“I knew I would never throw the book away, because, how many people have an autograph copy from the president?”

Raveling had the speech for nearly 25 years and no one knew he had it. “My wife didn’t even know that I had it,” he said. The prized possession came to light in 1983 when Raveling was named head coach at the University of Iowa, becoming the Big Ten’s first black head basketball coach.

“A reporter doing a magazine profile mentioned the letter in his story.

“That was the first public utterance that I had it.”

Raveling became a pioneer in his own right. In 1972, he became the first African American head basketball coach in what was then the Pacific-8 Conference at Washington State. He left there to coach at Iowa. He ended his coaching career at the University of Southern California.

Former Southern California coach and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee George Raveling speaks during the enshrinement ceremony for the Class of 2015 of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Sept. 11, 2015.

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

He was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. Today, Raveling is Nike’s director of international basketball.

Before we ended our conversation, I asked Raveling what impact being at the March on Washington, standing next to King on a historic day and getting the copy of his speech, had on his life.

Like most young people, Raveling said, it took a while for the moment to register. “It took a wealth of time to really realize what I was truly experiencing at the time, at 26 years old,” he said. “It took quite a few years for me to really understand the historic significance of it.”

Raveling referred to something he heard Malcolm X say about history during one of his talks. “He said that history is best situated to record all man’s deeds. What Malcolm was really saying is that history will ultimately put things in their rightful perspective.”

He added: “It took history to put this whole concept, the March on Washington, King’s contribution with the I Have A Dream speech, into its historic context.”

 

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.