Harry Belafonte Sues King Family Over MLK Documents Ownership

Image: Harry Belafonte Sues King Family Over MLK Documents Ownership

Thursday, 17 Oct 2013 12:24 PM

By Ronald Kessler

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A longtime dispute between entertainer Harry Belafonte and the family of Martin Luther King Jr. has reached the courts, with the singer filing a federal lawsuit to retain ownership of historic documents from the slain civil rights leader.

The historic documents from the civil rights movement include an undelivered speech that King had on him when he was assassinated in 1968, a famous 1967 speech that was King’s first outcry against America’s involvement in Vietnam, and a condolence letter that then-President Lyndon Johnson sent to King’s wife, Coretta, following MLK’s death.

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Belafonte, 86, told the New York Post that Coretta Scott King gave him the LBJ letter in 2003, three years before she passed away. The notes from the Memphis speech — potentially King’s last written words — were left to Belafonte by a former King aide upon his death in 1979. He received the Vietnam speech outline directly from King.

King's estate, led by daughter Bernice King, denies Belafonte's claims. Bernice King said he wrongfully acquired" the papers when artists tried to auction the items off for charity in 2008.

"Dr. King was a regular guest at Mr. Belafonte’s Manhattan apartment: he worked, socialized and rested there," states the lawsuit, which asks the court to declare Belafonte the rightful owner of the items. "Not surprisingly, during their long time together, Mr. Belafonte came to own documents associated with Dr. King and his widow."

CNN reported that the King family has struggled in the past in court battles for King's documents. 

Belafonte and King's children have been at odds since 2006, when the singer was banned from attending Coretta Scott King's funeral. George W. Bush attended the funeral, and Belafonte had been a strong critic of the Bush administration at the time, so the family barred him from coming.

Belafonte, a popular actor and Calypso singer in the 1960 and 1970s, became friends with King during the Civil Rights movement. He participated in some of its biggest protests of the era, including a March on Washington.

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