Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Harry Belafonte sues MLK children over archives
Harry Belafonte is 86, an age that tends to focus the mind on putting one’s affairs in order. And that is why, Belafonte says, he has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the three surviving children of one of his closest friends: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
At issue are three documents that used to be in Belafonte’s collection of memorabilia, along with other photos and letters on the walls of his apartment, chronicling his long friendship with King. Belafonte says the papers were given to him by King himself; by his widow, Coretta Scott King; and by King’s close aide Stanley Levison.
King’s heirs — Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III — have said the documents were taken without permission and belong to the estate.
Belafonte, who often supported the King family financially during the civil rights struggle, said the dispute pains him. He said in his view, King’s children had drifted 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 King’s 1967 speech “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam," written on a legal pad in Belafonte’s New York apartment. The second is a letter of condolence from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Coretta Scott King. The third is an envelope 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, Tenn.
In December 2008, 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, King’s estate challenged 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. Under state law, Sotheby’s faces liability to the actual owner if it releases property to the wrong party and so has refused to return the documents to Belafonte until the dispute is settled.
On Tuesday, Belafonte filed papers in federal court in Manhattan asking a judge to declare him the rightful owner.
William Hill, a lawyer for the King estate, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Bernice King, Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, said Bernice King had no comment on Belafonte’s suit. Messages left for the spokesman at the King Center in Atlanta, where Bernice King is chief executive, got no response.
Members of the King family have a history of suing to protect their right to King’s works and images, and they have also aggressively sought to recover King’s documents.
In 1986, King’s widow sued Boston University in an effort to regain control of about 83,000 documents that King had given it in the mid-1960s. (King received a Ph.D. from Boston University.) She lost in court.
More recently, in September 2011, the estate sued to stop King’s former secretary, Maude Ballou, from selling about 100 documents, notes, letters and speeches in her possession. Ballou, who is 88, and her son, Howard Ballou, maintained that King had given her the items in the late 1950s when she worked for him. A federal judge in Jackson, Miss., ruled that the King family had no evidence that Ballou had improperly obtained the papers and that the statute of limitations for reclaiming them had long passed. A federal appeals court in New Orleans upheld the decision in March.
Belafonte’s lawyer, Jonathan Abady, said the King estate has never presented evidence that 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," Abady said. “And, whatever rights the King children have, they are not entitled to undo the wishes and actions of their parents."