Posted on October 16, 2013

Belafonte Sues Heirs of Martin Luther King Jr.

James C. McKinley Jr., New York Times, October 16, 2013

Harry Belafonte is 86, an age that tends to focus the mind on putting one’s affairs in order. And that is why, Mr. Belafonte says, he has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the three surviving children of one of his closest friends: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At issue are three documents that used to be in Mr. Belafonte’s collection of memorabilia, along with other photos and letters on the walls of his apartment, chronicling his long friendship with Dr. King. Mr. Belafonte says the papers were given to him by Dr. King himself; by his widow, Coretta Scott King; and by Dr. King’s close aide Stanley Levison.

Dr. King’s heirs — Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III — have said the documents were taken without permission and belong to the estate.

Mr. Belafonte, who often supported the King family financially during the civil rights struggle, said the dispute pains him. He said in his view, Dr. King’s children had drifted away from their father’s values. “The papers are symbolic,” he said. “It’s really about what happened to the children, and I feel that somewhere, in this one area, I really failed Martin.”

One of the documents is a three-page outline for Dr. King’s 1967 speech “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam,” written on a legal pad in Mr. Belafonte’s New York apartment. The second is a letter of condolence from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Mrs. King. The third is an envelope Dr. King had in his pocket the day he was assassinated in 1968. On it he had scribbled notes for a speech he was to give in Memphis.

In December 2008, Mr. Belafonte tried to sell the documents at Sotheby’s auction house to raise money, he says, for Barrios Unidos, a charity that works with street gangs. Before the sale could go forward, however, Dr. King’s estate challenged Mr. Belafonte’s ownership of the papers that same month, charging in a letter to Sotheby’s that they are “part of a wrongfully acquired collection.”

Since then, the documents have been in limbo, sitting in the auction house’s storage vault while attempts to settle the dispute out of court have failed. {snip}

On Tuesday, Mr. Belafonte filed papers in federal court in Manhattan asking a judge to declare him the rightful owner.

{snip} The King family has a history of suing to protect its right to Dr. King’s works and images, and they have also aggressively sought to recover Dr. King’s documents.


Mr. Belafonte’s lawyer, Jonathan Abady, said the King estate has never presented evidence that Mr. Belafonte stole the documents. What’s more, the three-year time limit for filing a suit in New York to reclaim them has passed, he argued.

“We were left with no choice but to seek relief from the courts,” Mr. Abady said. “And, whatever rights the King children have, they are not entitled to undo the wishes and actions of their parents.”


Taylor Branch, a historian who wrote a trilogy of books on Dr. King, said the documents are of little value to scholars but have great value as memorabilia. He called the family’s attempt to wrest the items from Mr. Belafonte “sad to the point of tragedy.”

Clarence B. Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer and close friend, said the King family had every right to protect its copyright. Still, he said the heirs’ attempt to recover documents from Mr. Belafonte was “inconsistent with, and, really, a denigration of, the love and integrity that their dad had for the people who worked with him.”

“Harry Belafonte is not just another person,” he said.