The 86-year-old is taking the civil rights activist's three surviving children to court over the ownership of certain documents
Harry Belafonte was a good friend to the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr. during his lifetime and has, over the years, developed a rather large collection of MLK memorabilia. Three particular documents have gone missing from his collection though, and he knows exactly who to blame for their disappearance, Dr Luther King's three surviving children and the heirs to his estate; Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III.
Belafonte says the items are all rightfully his
The ownership of the documents, which Belafonte claims were given to him fairly by Dr King himself, his widow Coretta Scott King and his close friend and personal assistant Stanley Levison respectively, are being disputed by the entertainer and the three King children, who each claim the 'King of Calypso' has no right to them. Belafonte begs to differ though, saying the documents are rightfully his and just because the three are heirs to Dr King's estate, that doesn't make them entitled to everything related to their late father.
Belafonte was a close friend of Dr King and regularly provided financial backing for his civil rights struggle, and he has since said that the ongoing lawsuit pains him deeply. Claiming to be uninfluenced by whatever financial gains he could get from the documents, he has said that the documents hold a symbolic and nostalgic meaning to him, and he wants to use them for good. The three King children have said that the three documents belong to the family and have no right being in Belafonte's possession, and they are demanding them back. To defend his belongings, Belafonte has been forced to take the family estate to court.
Among the documents include a three-page outline for Dr. King’s 1967 'The Casualties of the War in Vietnam' speech, written on a legal pad in Belafonte’s New York apartment, which was apparently given to him by Dr King after he had finished his first draft of the speech. The second is a letter of condolence from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Mrs King following the assassination of her husband; which Belafonte claim was given to him by Coretta Scott in her will following her 2003 death. The third is an envelope that Dr King had scribbled and written notes on and was found in his pocket the day he was assassinated in 1968. The envelope was apparently given to him by Levison upon his death in 1979. Initially, he claims, Mrs King tried to give him a number of documents, including the envelope, following her husband's death, but he insisted that they would be better suited in Levison's possession.
'The King of Calypso' has long been a stern campaigner for equal rights
The ownership of the documents has been in dispute since 2008, when the singer and actor attempted to sell them at auction in order to raise money for the Barrios Unidos charity; a non-profit organisation that works with street gangs. When the items were listed by Sotherby's in December 2008, Belafonte was challenge by the King estate, who said the items did not rightfully belong to him and forced the auction to be put on hold. The documents have since sat in the auction house's safe deposit while attempts to resolve the issue have been made.
Under state law, the auction house faces liability if the wrong owner benefits from an auction, and in order to avoid a potential lawsuit they have kept hold of the items until the problem is resolved. With the ownership of the belongings still in limbo, on Tuesday, 15 October, Belafonte took the King estate to court to settle the matter once and for all.
Belafonte filed papers at a Manhatten court asking a judge to declare him as the rightful owner of the three documents and his lawyer, Jonathan Abady, has since said (via the New York Times) that his client has been left with no option but to fight the Kings in court and remains confident that the singer will win the case. Not only have the King children failed to present any evidence proving Belafonte had stolen the items, adding that the three year limit to file a suit has already passed. He said, “We were left with no choice but to seek relief from the courts. And, whatever rights the King children have, they are not entitled to undo the wishes and actions of their parents.”
He wants to sell the items in order to raise money for charity