George Raveling was an All-American basketball player at Villanova. When he playing career came to an end, Raveling went into coaching, which took him to the head jobs at Washington State, Iowa and USC. When he retired, he took over as Nike’s Director of International Basketball.
All of that earned him the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award given out by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But that’s far from the most intriguing aspect of Raveling’s life, as he played a major role in one of the most fascinating stories in college basketball history.
50 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, delivered the famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Raveling, a DC native, hadn’t planned on attending the march, but he managed to find himself on the stage, seven or eight people away from Dr. King, as a volunteer security guard.
Raveling was at dinner with the family of a former teammate in Wilmington, DE, the night before when the two youngsters were convinced to make the drive to DC to witness history. They got a hotel and made their way down to the Lincoln Memorial, where their size got them recruited to serve, a last-minute security precaution for event organizers that were worried about so many emotionally-charged people in one place.
Then King began to speak. As Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Garrow notes in the August 2003 edition of American History magazine, King had used the “I have a dream” phrase in four previous speeches. But to the ears of young George Raveling — and to most TV viewers; CBS carried the event live — it sounded all brand new. Suddenly Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice was heard by more people than all of his previous Southern Christian Leadership Conference orations combined. Recognizing this, the day before the march King had disseminated copies of the speech to the press. That day, worried that it was rather too predictable and oratorically stale, King rewrote much of the speech before heading to the podium, inking out lines and rewriting passages. What he did not ad, however, was the “I have a dream” refrain, which spontaneously erupted mid-way through the speech. Raveling has a theory about that. “King had just happened to be the last speaker,” Raveling says. “And as he began delivering the prepared text he saw that he was really capturing the crowd. That’s when Mahalia Jackson began egging him on. If you listen carefully to the speech you can her a woman’s voice in the back saying, ‘Please Martin tell them about the Dream.’ She was saying it constantly. It was like going to church on Sunday at a black church and people are making little remarks. From that point on he didn’t read the speech, he only used it as a guidepost.”
King ended his oration with the unforgettable line: “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” With sweat pouring out of him, he stepped back, blotted his forehead with a handkerchief, and waved farewell as he headed off the crowded makeshift platform. That’s when Raveling made his move. “I was only about four people off to the side of King,” he remembers. “I don’t know what possessed me but I walked up to King and calmly asked ‘Can I have that copy?’ Without hesitating he turned and handed it to me. And just as he did a rabbi on the other side came and said something to him, congratulating him on his speech and that was essentially the end of it as far as me acquiring the speech. Of course nobody, including myself, realized that this was going to take on the historical significance that it did.”
Here’s the most amazing part: Raveling forgot that he had the original copy of the speech for 20 years!!! He didn’t remember until a reporter asked him about being involved in the Civil Rights’ movement some 20 years later.
Raveling now has the two-and-a-half page speech framed. He keeps it in a bank vault in LA, where he now lives.