Pioneering coach George Raveling's surprising connection to MLK
His massive collection serves as a road map of sorts, documenting the twists and turns of Raveling’s remarkable, unpredictable life. He was a trailblazer, a member of the first wave of African-American basketball coaches at predominantly white universities. And even though he retired from coaching two decades ago, he is still dashing around the world as Nike’s director of international basketball. Raveling technically lives in Los Angeles, where he last coached, at USC, but it appears he goes there only to unpack. Then he’s off to Chicago or Beijing or Qatar.
Raveling needs three storage units for all the items he has collected. There is, however, one souvenir so special that he stores it separately, at a secure location. The item is worth millions of dollars, but he will not sell it. It is too -important -- to him, to his race and to his country.
Raveling acquired his most prized possession on Aug. 28, 1963, while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps you recall what occurred on that date at that place: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the demonstration that culminated in a defining moment for the civil rights movement. Raveling didn’t decide to go to the march until two days before, yet he emerged from that trip with the three pieces of paper that lay on the podium while the final speaker delivered one of the most important addresses in U.S. history.
To understand how Raveling ended up next to the speaker, and why he refuses to cash in on his priceless memento, you have to rummage through his collection, run your finger along the road map and piece together the parallel lives of two men, one a preacher, the other a coach. Theirs is a story of history and happenstance, linked by a surreal moment that sprang from a dream.
Martin Luther King Sr. was the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His son was a prodigy. In kindergarten Martin Jr. could recite lengthy Biblical passages. At 15 he won an oratory contest for his high school with an address titled “The Negro and the Constitution.” He skipped his senior year of high school after passing an entrance exam to Morehouse College. When he was 21, he was elected student body president at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pa., and at 25 he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
King was raised to trust his instincts at the pulpit. The only thing that matched his eloquence was his confidence. He learned early what the older preachers meant when they said, “Open your mouth and God will speak for you.”
The coach hardly knew his father. George Raveling lived with his parents and two half-siblings in northwest Washington, D.C., but his dad worked as a horse trainer at a racetrack in Delaware. “I couldn’t wait for him to come home on the weekend, because I knew he was going to give me a silver dollar,” Raveling recalls.
When George was nine, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Raveling doesn’t remember how he heard the news, doesn’t remember the funeral, doesn’t remember missing his dad all that much, really. “We were not that close, so I don’t know that it created a huge void for me.”
But he was devastated four years later when his mother suffered what was described to him as a nervous breakdown. She spent many of her remaining years in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in southeast D.C. George moved around among the homes of his grandmother Mamie and his mother’s brother and two sisters. A family for whom Mamie worked contacted a Catholic charity to pay for George’s schooling. That enabled him to leave home at 14 and attend St. Michael’s, a boarding school in Hoban Heights, Pa.
Most of the boys at St. Michael’s were white, but George didn’t feel any racial tension in that big dormitory room with 80 or so beds. The kids were mostly from broken homes, just like George. “We were just a group of kids who were all longing for someone to love and care about them,” he says. There were a few black students who were involved in sports, so George followed their lead. Even though his only basketball experience was playing a little streetball back home, George began playing at St. Michael’s and was a natural. His forte was rebounding, but as a junior he scored 28 points in one game, and as a senior he was the third leading scorer in Pennsylvania. He was one of two black players on the team. They heard a few racial taunts at away games, but their coach had counseled them to keep their cool. George respected the coach too much to defy him.
After playing in an all-star showcase in the spring of his senior year, George was approached by Jack Ramsay, the basketball coach at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Ramsay asked George if he would consider playing for the Hawks on scholarship. To that point George hadn’t given any thought to attending college. But sure, he was interested, and he listened to pitches from a few other schools as well, eventually settling on Villanova. The nuns at St. Michael’s made him stay after school and do extra work to prepare for that entrance exam.
Despite the family hardship he had endured, Raveling was living a blessed, sheltered life. He was a young black man living in segregated America, but for him racial injustice was largely an abstraction, something he read about in sociology class. “I’ve often joked that it wasn’t until I got to Villanova that I learned I grew up in the ghetto,” he says.
By the time Raveling enrolled in college in the fall of 1956, he knew all about Martin Luther King Jr., who had risen to national prominence by leading a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery. The protest was ignited when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger, and it ended with a court-mandated city ordinance desegregating Montomgery’s buses. Raveling followed the events closely, and the civil rights movement was a frequent topic of conversation among his friends. “I never heard anybody who had the command and gifts of public speaking that he did,” Raveling says of King. “He carried himself as you would envision a leader would do.”
Raveling became fascinated by public speaking. He collected recordings of speeches by King and other civil rights leaders. When he learned that King had attended a seminary just 16 miles from Villanova’s campus, he felt they were even more connected. Anytime Raveling heard King was coming through the area, he tried to be there. He heard King speak about a half-dozen times during his four years as an undergraduate.
Meanwhile, the 6' 4", 210-pound Raveling was flourishing on the basketball court. In three years on the varsity he pulled down 835 rebounds, 11th on Villanova’s alltime list. He was only the second black basketball player at the university, but he didn’t experience much racial conflict. Once, during a trip to Wake Forest, the team got into a heated argument with a hotel elevator operator in Winston-Salem, N.C., who declared that the black players could not stay there. Villanova coach Al Severance arranged for the players to stay in a dormitory at Winston-Salem State, a historically black college.
When Raveling graduated in 1960, he assumed his basketball life was over. He took a job as a marketing analyst with Sun Oil but remained an active supporter of the Wildcats’ program, often meeting with black recruits to share his positive experiences. In ’62, Villanova’s new coach, Jack Kraft, asked him to come on board as a part-time assistant. The school had done so much for Raveling. He felt obligated to say yes.
For most of his childhood, Raveling had many good friends but never a best friend. That changed during his senior year at Villanova when he met Warren Wilson. Wilson was a high school student whose father, Woodrow, ran a thriving dental practice in Wilmington, Del. Raveling met Woodrow and his wife, Lucille, while dating their daughter, Marsha, and he soon fell in love with the entire family. Raveling delighted in sitting with the elder Wilsons in their living room, where they engaged in stimulating discussions of history, culture and current events. It was an experience he had never had with his own parents.
Many of those conversations naturally turned to the civil rights movement. It intensified during the summer of 1963, when the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Eugene (Bull) Connor, ordered police to use fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights demonstrators and their children. TV viewers around the country were repulsed by images of the violent repression. To capitalize on that -momentum, King joined other civil rights leaders who had long been advocating for a large-scale demonstration in Washington. The date was set for Aug. 28.
On Aug. 26, Raveling was having dinner at the Wilsons’ when Warren’s father asked if the boys were planning on going to the march. They were not, but Dr. Wilson urged them to reconsider. He even offered to lend them his car and provide some spending money. So the next day Raveling and Warren Wilson drove to Raveling’s hometown, checked into a motel and strolled around the Mall. One of the event’s organizers spotted the two sturdy young men and asked if they would be willing to help out with security. Raveling and Wilson agreed to show up early the next morning.
Around that time King was huddled with his advisers at the Willard Hotel, trying to produce a final draft of his speech. Most of King’s sermons were batches of set pieces stitched together on the fly, but this was an important occasion, and he wanted to get it just right. King and his primary writer, Clarence Jones, had crafted a passage about a “bad check” that had been given to black Americans in the Constitution. King wanted to argue that it was time for the U.S. to make good on its promissory note. Jones also wanted King to use an old set piece containing variations on the phrase I have a dream, but some of King’s other counselors worried it would come off as trite, and there was not enough time to include both the dream and the bad check. All the speakers were limited to five minutes, and King wanted to abide by the time limit even though he would be the last to appear at the podium.
After several hours of debate King said, “O.K., brothers, thank you so very much for your suggestions and input. I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord.” He worked until 4 a.m. and then handed his final draft to his aides so they could type it up and distribute it to the press. The text covered three pages. The words I have a dream were not in it.
Raveling and Wilson arrived at the Mall at 8 a.m. that Wednesday. They were delighted to learn they’d be stationed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Only about 25,000 people were on the Mall at the start of the day, but over the next hours the crowd swelled to nearly 250,000.
The program of speakers and entertainers began at the Washington Monument. Shortly after noon the crowd walked the nine tenths of a mile to the Lincoln Memorial. As temperatures hovered near 90°, Raveling noticed that many of the marchers were dipping their feet into the reflecting pool to keep cool.
When King went to the podium, shortly after 4 p.m., only a dozen or so volunteers stood between him and Raveling. Several hundred copies of King’s prepared remarks had been distributed to reporters. Those copies all bore an official stamp, but the copy King had at the podium did not. After expressing his gratitude for the honor of joining the glorious demonstration, King began reading. “Five score years ago,” he said, “a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. . . .”
To Raveling, it was as if no one but King existed in the world. “I was in total awe,” he says. “I just froze and was totally locked in on what he was saying.” Over the crackling loudspeakers, though, King’s voice carried to only about half of the immense crowd. Many others listened on transistor radios. The major television networks, which had covered the march throughout the day, were carrying King’s speech live.
He spoke with his eyes mostly fixed on the script below. It made him look nervous. As he came toward the end, however, he sensed that his prepared remarks were not rising to the spirit of the occasion. He had experienced this unpleasant feeling before. As he once put it, “It’s terrible to be circling around up there without a place to land.”
When King came to a sentence that read, “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction,” he decided he needed a better landing strip. So he raised his eyes, opened his mouth and let God speak for him. “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. . . .”
As King began to ad-lib, Clarence Jones thought, He’s on his own now. He’s inspired.
King continued: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . .’ ”
His eyes no longer locked on the lectern, King gazed across the mass of humanity and sang out his words. His voice quavered. The spontaneous addition lasted a mere two minutes and 40 seconds and consisted of 301 words, but they were the most moving words of the day. King concluded by expressing the hope that one day in America people of all races and religions would “be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual -- free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
As the crowd roared, King took the papers that had been lying on the podium and folded them in his hands. He turned to his left and, for a brief instant, found himself face-to-face with a volunteer assistant basketball coach at Villanova.
“Dr. King,” Raveling said, pointing at the papers, “can I have that?” King handed Raveling the speech, and within moments there was a swarm of people between the two men. Raveling folded the papers and put them in his pocket.
He and Wilson were pumped with adrenaline all the way back to Delaware. When they got to the Wilsons’ house, Raveling showed the pages to Woodrow, who was duly impressed.
Raveling figured the speech would make a nice addition to his collection. Nothing more, nothing less. “At no time do I remember thinking, Wow, we got this historic document,” he says. When he got home, he searched for a place to stash the papers. On his bookshelf he spotted a biography of Harry S. Truman that the former president had autographed when Raveling visited Kansas City for the East-West College All-Star Game. Raveling tucked King’s speech inside the front cover.
In the ensuing years Raveling spent more and more time at Villanova. He realized he had an advantage when it came to recruiting young black players, especially in the South, where local universities were reluctant to sign them. Howard Porter, who would become a three-time All-America at Villanova, arrived from Sarasota, Fla., in 1967, the year Raveling was first listed in the Wildcats’ media guide as a full-time -assistant -- although he still kept his day job as a rep for Converse. He also used his team position to improve his public speaking at booster functions and coaching clinics.
On most days the 30-year-old Raveling would put in a full day’s work at Converse and then drive over to Villanova to help Kraft and his staff. When he walked into the basketball office on the evening of April 4, 1968, he found the other coaches huddled around a television. They were following news reports from Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death while standing on the balcony outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. King had gone to the city to support a strike by sanitation workers. He was 39 years old.
The news cut Raveling to the core. “It couldn’t have been any worse if it was a family member,” he says. “For the first time in my life I looked at race from a totally different perspective than I had earlier. I began to understand that there were people out there who disliked us so much that they would kill us.”
Raveling was crushed again the following May, when Warren Wilson, the friend who shared that special moment with him in D.C., was killed in an auto accident in Wilmington as he drove to work the evening shift at General Motors. He was 23. Raveling met Warren’s sister and her husband at the train station in Philadelphia and drove them to Delaware. He loved the Wilsons like his own family, but without Warren around, he eventually grew distant from them. “He died much too young,” Raveling says softly. “We could talk about anything. It was a long time before I ever acquired another friend that I felt as close to as I did to him.”
Raveling was on the Villanova staff for one more year before the new coach at Maryland, Lefty Driesell, persuaded him to move to College Park for the 1969–70 season. His recruiting magic -- he brought in future NBA stalwarts Tom McMillen and Len Elmore -- quickly enabled Maryland to become a national powerhouse.
Raveling was the first black coach Maryland had hired, and the first in the ACC. In 1970, Illinois State made Will Robinson the first black man to be hired as a Division I head basketball coach. Two years later three more were added to the ranks: John Thompson (at Georgetown), Fred Snowden (Arizona) and Raveling, who at 34 became the coach of Washington State and the first black coach in the Pac-8.
While he was at Washington State, Raveling was divorced from his first wife, Vivian. He had never been farther west than Kansas City, and though Pullman, Wash., had few blacks, it felt like home. Raveling eventually turned the Cougars into winners. In 1980 they played in their first NCAA tournament in 39 years, and in ’83 they won a first-round game over Weber State. Raveling’s success drew interest from several schools, and in the spring of ’83 he agreed to become the coach at Iowa. He was the Hawkeyes’ first black men’s basketball coach, but he tried not to exploit that. He believed the best way to help other black people was to do well at his job. “I was not comfortable speaking out on social issues,” he says, “because I had not yet created a platform where people would listen.”
Shortly after Raveling arrived at his new job, a reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette named Bob Denney started conducting interviews for a book he wanted to write about the first black basketball coach in University of Iowa history. While interviewing Woodrow Wilson in Delaware, Denney learned that Raveling had been to the March on Washington. When he brought it up to Raveling at his house, the coach replied, “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech.”
Denney was floored. “You have the speech?” he asked.
The two of them went down to Raveling’s basement, where he dug through boxes for about 15 minutes before exhuming the biography of Truman. He opened the front cover and, sure enough, there the speech was, folded in half, right where he had put it more than 20 years before. The only markings on it were the underline and asterisk Raveling had added to indicate where King deviated from his prepared remarks.
Raveling might not have recognized the significance of those pages, but Denney did. He wrote a story on Raveling’s experience at the march for the Gazette, which published it in January 1984 to coincide with King’s birthday, by then a national holiday. As a gesture of thanks, Denney asked Raveling if he could have the speech museum-treated and framed. He then presented the frame to Raveling as a gift.
Though the racial makeup of Iowa City was similar to that of Pullman, Raveling struggled under the glare of the Big Ten spotlight. When USC came calling in the spring of 1986 he jumped at the chance to go back to a big, diverse city. As he passed his 50th birthday, in ’87, he became increasingly cognizant of the larger responsibilities that came with his position. He became an active member of the Black Coaches Association and spoke about social issues at the intersection of race, education and athletics. In January ’89, John Thompson walked off the court to protest a new NCAA ruling that would deny athletic scholarships to freshmen who failed to qualify academically under Proposition 42. Raveling felt a sensation he had not known since the days of the civil rights movement. “I still had some bitterness because of King’s death,” he says. “John lit the fires inside of me.” Shortly after Thompson’s protest Raveling took part in a secret conference call with dozens of other prominent coaches, during which they discussed a wide-scale boycott of that upcoming weekend’s games. The boycott never materialized, but Raveling continued to be a vocal advocate for the Black Coaches Association, the National Association of Basketball Coaches and USA Basketball, for which he served as an assistant on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.
Alas, while Raveling was becoming one of the game’s elder statesmen, his USC teams were underperforming. It took five years for him to produce a winning record. His best season was 1991–92, when the Trojans won 24 games and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, but USC failed to make the Big Dance the next two years. Two months before the start of the ’94–95 season Raveling was driving through Los Angeles when his Jeep was blindsided by another car. He suffered multiple fractures and a collapsed lung and spent two weeks recovering in a hospital. That November, citing the long rehab that awaited him, he retired from coaching at 57. A year later he took a job with Nike as the director of grassroots basketball, and he has been with the company ever since.
He remains a revered figure in the sport. “He wasn’t just a coach, he was a role model,” says George Mason coach Paul Hewitt. “He showed a lot of white administrators that they could hire other black coaches who could represent their universities well.” In 2013 the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame gave Raveling its prestigious John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award.
In the decades since that first story was published in Iowa, Raveling has often been asked to explain how he came to possess the original copy of the “I Have a Dream” speech. For several years he hung it on his office wall. He later moved it to his house, but as more people learned of its existence, Raveling’s wife, Delores, became worried that someone would try to break in and steal it. So he arranged to have it stored in a bank vault in Los Angeles.
Last fall Raveling received a phone call from a collector offering more than $3 million for the document. That’s a lot of money, but Raveling says, “At this point in my life, what difference does it make? I’m not rich, but it’s not like I’m poor, either.” Selling the speech would also cheapen the memory of that remarkable day and the two men with whom he shared it, his best friend and the preacher, whose lives were so tragically cut short.
He would like the speech to be on public display someday. He has had discussions with museums, universities, foundations and a representative of King’s family. He hopes to make a decision soon, but just in case, he has written a clause into his will that passes custody of the speech to his son, Mark.
There is only one condition: Mark may never sell it.
The preacher has been dead for almost 47 years, but he is never far from Raveling’s thoughts. Partly that is because Raveling gets asked about him so often, but it is also because King is still his hero. Raveling often contemplates the world King tried to build. Six years ago a black man was sworn in as president of the U.S. while resting his hand on King’s family Bible, yet Raveling believes that if King had lived, he would be discouraged that there hasn’t been more progress toward making his dream a reality. “I think he would be disappointed that we are still grappling with the same basic concerns,” Raveling says. “There’s inequity in education; unemployment stats are staggering. He’d still be wondering why [so many] of those incarcerated today are blacks. If he had stayed alive, maybe he’d have been the catalyst to get it done.”
If a man as gifted as Martin Luther King Jr. could not fix the world, it would be foolish for Raveling to think he could do any better. Yet during whatever time he has left, the coach intends to keep marching, keep mentoring. After all, a man never knows when he might find himself in the right place at the right time.