Harry Belafonte Sues MLK's Heirs Over Auction Items

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on October 16, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Harry Belafonte filed a lawsuit in federal court against Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s estate after it prevented him from auctioning off three MLK documents at Sotheby's in 2008. Belafonte was trying to raise money for charity.

Belafonte is suing Dr. King's estate to seek unspecified damages and a court declaration that he is the rightful owner.

MLK Memorabilia

The three documents at issue include:

  1. A three-page outline for Dr. King's 1967 speech "The Casualties of the War in Vietnam," written on a legal pad in Belafonte's New York apartment;
  2. A condolence letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Mrs. King;
  3. An envelope Dr. King had in his pocket the day he was assassinated in 1968 (with notes for a speech he was to deliver in Memphis scrawled on it -- the last words Dr. King put to paper).

Belafonte says the first was given to him by Dr. King himself; the second, by Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King; and the third, by Dr. King's close aide Stanley Levison, reports The New York Times.

He wanted to auction the documents at Sotheby's to raise money for Barrios Unidos, a charity that works with street gangs.

But Dr. King's estate wrote a letter to Sotheby's claiming the documents are "part of a wrongfully acquired collection," leading to the auction being cancelled.

The Apple Falls Far From the Tree

Belafonte, who often provided financial assistance to the King family during the civil rights movement, believes Dr. King's three surviving children have drifted away from their father's values, reports the Times.

He's certainly not alone in his sentiment. The King children, who own the copyright to MLK's historic "I Have a Dream" speech, have become notorious for aggressively pursuing and enforcing intellectual property rights over relics from their father's legacy.

Fortunately for Belafonte, the King estate has a spotty record of winning in court. The estate may again run into familiar legal barriers -- namely, New York's three-year statute of limitations and insufficient proof of improper possession -- that it faced in a lawsuit against Boston University and a more recent suit against Dr. King's former secretary.

In the meantime, Sotheby's is storing the property in a storage vault until the dispute is settled.

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