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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Harry Belafonte Sues MLK Estate

MANHATTAN (CN) - Harry Belafonte sued Martin Luther King's estate "to resolve once and for all" his ownership of a draft of King's speech against the Vietnam war, and a speech King never delivered because he was assassinated.

Belafonte sued the estate and Bernice King, the Kings' youngest daughter, as administrator of the estate of Coretta Scott King, in Federal Court.

The lawsuit centers on three documents that Belafonte consigned to Sotheby's in 2008 to evaluate and auction off for charitable purposes.

"These documents belong to Harry Belafonte," he says in the complaint. He says they were "given to him by the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his widow, Coretta Scott King."

The documents are "an outline for Dr. King's now famous 'The Casualties of the War in Vietnam' speech," which King delivered in February 1967.

That speech, history showed, set off a furor in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's office, Hoover believing that a conjunction of the civil rights and anti-war movements would further the "communists'" aims.

Belafonte says King worked on the speech in Belafonte's New York apartment, and left the outline with him "for Mr. Belafonte to preserve for posterity or any other disposition, if he so wished."

The second document contains notes for an undelivered speech King was to give in Memphis, where King had gone to support a garbage workers' strike. "These notes were found in Dr. King's suit pocket after he was assassinated in 1968."

Belafonte says Coretta Scott King gave him the notes as they prepared the clothes to lay her husband's body in state, but he "felt that Stanley Levison, one of Dr. King's longest-serving confidants, was more deserving, and suggested to Mrs. King that she give them to Mr. Levison."

She did, he says, and Levison told his own wife, just before he died, to give the Memphis notes to Belafonte, which she did.

The third document is a condolence note from President Lyndon Johnson to Coretta Scott King. She gave it to Belafonte after seeing his collection of framed historic documents on the wall of his apartment, where she was a frequent visitor.

Belafonte says the Kings "were well-known for gifting papers and artifacts to their close friends, colleagues, and institutions," and that the defendants have often "overreach(ed)" by claiming interest in the items.

He claims the defendants prevented the Sotheby's sale, scheduled for December 2008, by claiming that the documents had been "wrongfully acquired."

Two days later, the defendants challenged his title to the documents, through counsel.

Since then, he says, neither the estate nor Bernice King has ever provided him or Sotheby's "information or any facts" to substantiate their claim.

Belafonte seeks declaratory judgment, possession of the documents, and costs.

He is represented by Jonathan Abady with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.

Belafonte, known as the "King of Calypso," became just as well known for his civil rights work with King. He says in the lawsuit that he and the civil rights leader formed a "deep and enduring personal friendship," and that for years he "provided much needed financial support to the Reverend and his family."

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