Harry Belafonte sues Martin Luther King Jr's heirs
By Layne Weiss
New York - Harry Belafonte, 86, sued the estate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Tuesday over three documents that used to be in Mr. Belafonte's collection of memorabilia, The New York Times reports.
Belafonte kept them with other pieces of memorabilia such as photos and letters to chronicle his close friendship with Martin Luther King. Mr. Belafonte says the papers in question were given to him by King himself, his wife Coretta Scott King and by a close aide of Dr. King's, Stanley Levison.
Dr. King’s heirs — Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III — have said the documents were taken without consent and belong to the estate
Belafonte's lawsuit in a federal court in Manhattan seeks undefined damages and a court declaration that Belafonte is the rightful owner, The AP reports.
The documents are an outline of a Vietnam War speech by King, notes to a speech King never got to deliver in Memphis, Tenn., and a condolence letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to King's wife after the civil rights leader's assassination on April 4, 1968.
Mr. Belafonte attempted to auction off these documents in 2008, but was "astonishingly" blocked by King's estate. Bernice King claimed the papers were "wrongfully acquired."
Belafonte's lawsuit cites his tight bond with Dr. King noting the pair "worked on strategies and collaborated on issues that would transform American society" while they "forged a deep and enduring personal friendship." The lawsuit adds that Dr. King and his widow, Coretta Scott King, gave Belafonte a bunch of items, and noted that Coretta Scott King mentioned Harry Belafonte in her autobiography, saying "whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open."
Since late 2008, the documents have been held in a storage vault at Sotheby's, The NY Times reports. Sotheby's has refused to release the documents back to Mr. Belafonte because under New York state law, they would face liability for releasing property to the wrong owner. They cannot give the documents back to Mr. Belafonte until the dispute is settled.
“Not a scintilla of evidence was ever offered to support this claim, yet the Estate demanded the documents be turned over to them,” the lawsuit says according to the NYPost.
Mr. Belafonte’s lawyer, Jonathan Abady, said the King estate has never presented evidence that Mr. Belafonte stole the documents. Moreover, the three-year time limit for filing a suit in New York to reclaim them has passed, he asserted.
"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.”
Mr. Belafonte's ties to the King family began to fall apart when Mrs. King died in 2006. He was not invited to her funeral because he supported President Hugo Chavez.
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,” Jones said.