Guardian of The Dream

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Martin Luther King Jr. addresses thousands of civil rights supporters at the March on Washington in 1963

Forty years ago today, George Raveling found himself on stage as Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Raveling had just finished a career as an All-American basketball player at Villanova. Ahead of him were more than 30 years as a highly successful college basketball coach. But on August 28, 1963, he beacame forever connected with the civil rights movement when a triumphant King, waving goodbye to an audience of over 200,000 "March on Washington" participants gave Raveling the original typewritten "I Have a Dream" speech.

How a gangly 24-year-old ex-basketball star and volunteer security guard became the guardian of the speech is an amazing story of raw chutzpah and plain dumb luck. It began the night before at the dinner table of Dr. Woodrow and Lucile Wilson in Wilmington, Delaware. They were the parents of Raveling's best friend Warren Wilson, a fellow basketball player from Villanova. Nearly 100,000 people were expected to march on Washington the following day demanding a $2 minimum wage, passage of a meaningful civil rights bill, desegregation of schools, a federal public-works job program and the barring of unfair employment practices. As dessert was being served, Dr. Wilson declared, "You guys take the car and head to Washington, you've got to be involved with this." He gave them gas money and bear hugs goodbye. "So we drove down that night," Raveling recalls.

The two friends got a hotel and wandered down to the Lincoln Memorial, where a man recruited them to work as volunteer security guards for the event. Security was a genuine concern for the organizers. Although it was billed as a nonviolent protest, everybody had the jitters. Writing in the New York Times about the early morning hours of August 28, Nan Robertson said that "there were probably more cops than marchers on the assembly grounds around the Washington Monument." The Washington, D.C. Police Commissioner assigned two-thirds of his force to the area surrounding the Mall. The National Guard and D.C. Fire Department called up 5,000 reservists to provide backup assistance. The District of Columbia liquor board banned the sale of alcohol in the city. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, then serving as attorney general, braced themselves for the worst. One pipe bomb, they feared, could trigger a riot the magnitude of which America had never seen. To placate law enforcement agencies organizers promised that no sit-ins or civil disobedience stunts would occur. The tapping of youngsters like Raveling and Wilson, both well over six-feet in height, to serve as marshals was a last-minute security precaution. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling recalls. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Raveling and Wilson arrived at the designated rendezvous spot the next morning an hour early and were assigned to the speakers’ dias. Already people were pouring onto the grassy lawns surrounding the reflection pool. By 9:30 am there were 40,000 participants with the number swelling to an estimated 100,000 by noon.

This "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" may have been the culmination of what King called the "sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent," but what Raveling most remembers about the day is the soaring music being played only a few yards from him. He heard Peter, Paul, and Mary singing "Blowin' in the Wind," Bob Dylan performed a tribute song for Medgar Evers, and Odetta stir the crowd with a soulful rendition of "O'Freedom Over Me!" But while Raveling enjoyed the entertainment, the day for him was all business. "It was great seeing Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier but I didn't focus on them," he says. "I took my responsibility seriously and stayed focused on the crowd."

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."

Over the years Raveling has returned to the Lincoln Memorial and stood on the spot where he asked King for his speech back in 1963. His only regret is that Warren Wilson, who died in an automobile accident four years after the March on Washington, wasn't with him. "I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling says, and smiles. "But I'm sure glad that I did."

Douglas Brinkley is Director of the Eisenhower Center and Professor of History at the University of New Orleans


Newsfile: Civil Rights
Read the 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. Man of the Year cover story. Plus, a collection of related TIME cover images, articles and photo essays