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Volume 20 No. 46
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Opportunity, luck hand Raveling MLK’s ‘Dream’ speech

The story of how George Raveling came to own the only original copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of opportunity and luck. And in this case, the line separating those is blurry.

A few days before 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, to watch King speak as a culmination of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Raveling had no plans to go, no transportation and no place to stay. Knowing it would be a significant event, a friend’s father bankrolled the trip and lent them his car.

The day before the march, Raveling was in Washington. A stranger, no doubt noticing Raveling’s 6-foot-6 frame, asked if he’d be interested in volunteering on the security detail the next day. After Raveling agreed, he was told to show up at 9 a.m. Raveling got there 30 minutes early, so he was assigned to the speaker’s podium.

As you’d expect, his recollections are vivid.

“I was mesmerized,” said Raveling, then 26. “By the time King was halfway through, he had the audience in his back pocket. It was the largest gathering in the history of America of black people in one place. We knew it was a moment in history, we just didn’t realize how big.”

Raveling (right corner) was on the podium for Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 speech and asked the civil rights leader for the three pages afterward.
Photo by: CBS SPORTS

When King finished his 17-minute speech and headed toward the back of the podium, something within Raveling made him ask King for those three typewritten pages. Why?

“That’s the question I have no answer for,” Raveling admitted nearly 54 years later. “I have no idea. It was just an impulse.”

Just as inexplicably, King handed it over to a stranger with no hesitation.

“I’m not too sure that if he had it to do all over, he would have given it to me,” Raveling said.

Raveling kept the speech for decades inside a book by Harry Truman, which the former president had personally inscribed to him. He knew he’d never get rid of the book, so he figured it was safe. So for decades, the copy of a speech many call the most important in American history, along with the Gettysburg address and JFK’s inaugural address, went uninsured.

“My wife didn’t even know about it,” Raveling said.

When he took the head coaching job at Iowa in 1983, a local reporter asked him if he’d been involved in the civil rights movement. Raveling told him the story, then had to scramble through some basement boxes to find the Truman book with King’s speech inside.

Eventually, Raveling’s wife told him to store it somewhere more safe, so now it’s in a bank vault. It will be passed on to his son.

With no comparable, estimating a potential sales price is nearly impossible. According to Raveling, three experts in historic documents have tried to put a value on it, a la “Antiques Roadshow.” Two of them termed it priceless.

The third said it was worth a minimum of $24 million.