He wasn’t planning to be there.
When his best friend’s father asked him and his buddy if they were going to attend the March on Washington, they both said no. They didn’t have the money, and they didn’t have a ride.
“He said, ‘Well, I’ll solve that.’ He gave us money and the use of one of his cars,” recalls former Washington State University men’s head basketball coach George Raveling.
It was two nights before the march. The twenty-six-year-old former Villanova University basketball star was just three years out of college and hadn’t yet made history himself—as the first Black assistant basketball coach at his alma mater and at the University of Maryland, the first Black basketball coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the first Black head basketball coach in the Pac-8 (now Pac-12) and at Washington State University, the University of Iowa, and University of Southern California.
In summer 1963, he was having dinner in Delaware at his friend’s parents’ house when Woodrow Wilson, the preeminent Black dentist and Raveling’s friend’s dad, encouraged both young men to make the drive to Washington, D.C. to attend the peaceful protest.
They did, and—instead of standing elbow-to-elbow in the crowd of some 250,000 people on the National Mall—they ended up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, working security during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed I Have a Dream speech. Each came away from the day with a front-row experience of the iconic event. But Raveling took home a concrete reminder and one-of-a-kind historical artifact: King’s own copy of his legendary address.
“I knew it was important,” Raveling says. But, at that time, “I didn’t know it was historic.”
Raveling had been following the Civil Rights Movement in the news and considered himself “a huge fan” of King. “I have always had great admiration for him as a leader and orator,” says Raveling, who had heard the reverend speak roughly half-dozen times in and around Philadelphia before the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
He and his friend, Warren Wilson, arrived the night before the march to walk the grounds and “just get a feel for what it was going to be like.” As they were exploring, Raveling recalls, “We ran into a gentleman who asked if we were coming to the march.” Then, “he asked if we were interested in volunteering, and we said, ‘For what?’”
Both stood over six feet tall. The man told them, Raveling recalls, “‘You guys would be great for security, and we said, ‘OK, we’ll do it.’”
The morning of the march, the last-minute volunteers showed up early for a briefing. “They went through the strategy. If something were to break out we were to get people out the back of the Lincoln Memorial,” says Raveling, who had a spot on the podium to the left of the lectern. “When King spoke—as soon as he was done—we were to move in and secure him and the people on the dais, and get them out the back. Just as he was finishing, we started to move closer toward the podium. Of course, when he finished, the crowd went crazy.”
Suddenly, Raveling says, “I was right there beside him.” He seized the moment. “I said, ‘Dr. King, can I have that copy?’”
King was folding his speech. Next thing he knew, “he was handing it to me,” Raveling says. “Then he turned to talk to the rabbi, who came to congratulate him. It all happened that quick.”
The most famous paragraphs describing King’s Dream aren’t part of the original, untitled text. The activist ad-libbed those. An asterisk on the third page—put there by Raveling—indicates where King began to stray from the typed words.
The sixteen-minute speech “electrified” the audience and served as “one of the most emotional moments in my lifetime,” Raveling says.
While he was captivated by King’s speech, he also had a job to do. “I had a responsibility as a security person,” Raveling says. “Focus was primary. We had to always be scanning the audience.”
Raveling chalks up his coming into contact with King and receiving his copy of I Have a Dream to being “in the right place at the right time. It was an unusual set of circumstances that got me there. I feel most fortunate.”
His ask was spontaneous. To this day, Raveling says, “I have no idea why I did it.”
He never crossed paths with King again. The legendary Civil Rights leader was assassinated at 39 on April 4, 1968.
A year later, Raveling’s friend Warren was killed in a car crash.
By then, Raveling had long since tucked King’s speech into the pages of a book: a signed autobiography by Harry S. Truman. He didn’t think about or look at it again for two decades, just past his time at WSU.
During an interview for a January 15, 1984, story in Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Gazette, former sports reporter Bob Denney asked whether Raveling had participated in the Civil Rights Movement. The question spurred a search for the book containing the creased pages of the speech in a box in his basement. They were right where Raveling had left them.
He’s since been offered millions of dollars for the speech, now framed and stored safely in a bank vault in Los Angeles. Raveling lives in the Ladera Heights neighborhood with his wife, Delores Akins-Raveling, a community college administrator.
In 2013, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of march, CBS did a segment on how Raveling came to acquire the speech. He reflected on that historic day and his role in it.
He said he sees himself as the “guardian” of the speech, a sort of steward or caretaker. “The speech belongs to America. The speech belongs to Black folks,” Raveling told CBS. “It doesn’t belong to me, and it would be sacrilegious of me to try and sell it to profit from it.”
He’s been in talks with foundations and museums, working to get King’s speech displayed for public viewing.
“ … I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there. And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him,” Raveling told the Gazette when he was 46, likening his experience with King to another great American leader and historic address.
Raveling, now 83, then continued, “That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say, ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’”
Bring out the best: Raveling’s time as head coach for WSU men’s basketball
On the web
Video: Last-minute volunteer took home copy of I Have a Dream speech (CBS News)
Reflecting on a dream (WSU Athletics, 2013)