Belafonte Sues Martin Luther King Estate Over Speeches

Harry Belafonte sued the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. saying it’s trying to wrest ownership of several documents from him, including the draft of a speech found in the civil-rights leader’s suit pocket just after he was assassinated.

The dispute started when Belafonte, who was close friends with King and his wife, decided to consign some of King’s papers for auction at Sotheby’s in 2008, according to a complaint filed today in federal court in Manhattan.

King’s estate and his daughter, Bernice King, accused Belafonte of having “wrongfully acquired” the collection and Sotheby’s has refused since then to return the items to him until ownership is resolved, according to the complaint.

Among the items in dispute are an outline for a 1967 King speech called “Casualties of War in Vietnam” and a speech to have been delivered in Memphis that Belafonte and Coretta Scott King discovered in the civil rights leader’s pocket when they were preparing for his funeral in 1968, according to the complaint. Also at issue is a typewritten condolence letter that President Lyndon B. Johnson sent to the widow after her husband was killed, Belafonte said.

“Not a scintilla of evidence was ever offered to support this claim, yet the estate demanded the documents be turned over to them,” Belafonte said in his complaint.

Miles Alexander, a lawyer for the King estate, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Eric Tidwell, who handles intellectual property for the King Center, didn’t immediately respond to a voice-mail message seeking comment. Bernice King is the chief executive officer of the King Center.

Belafonte said that during his friendship with King, he had offered to put up bail money to gain King’s release from jail after several arrests and that King had stayed at his Manhattan apartment, calling it a “retreat.”

“For more than a decade, Dr. King and Mr. Belafonte worked at the epicenter of this nation’s historic Civil Rights movement, a history that is well documented,” Belafonte said in the complaint. “From Memphis to Birmingham, to Washington, D.C. and beyond, Dr. King and Mr. Belafonte worked on strategies and collaborated on issues that would transform American society.”

Belafonte said that while Mrs. King initially gave the draft of the Memphis speech to a mutual friend, it was willed to him after the friend’s death.

In the lawsuit, the singer and activist cited what he said were other instances where the King estate and Bernice King overreached and claimed to own items that were given to friends and supporters by King and his wife. He also argued that the estate waited too long to contest ownership of the documents. He seeks a declaration that he’s the rightful owner as well as an order permanently barring the estate and Bernice King from asserting title to the items.

The case is Belafonte v. Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., 13-cv-07241, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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