Belafonte Dispute: Martin Luther King, Jr. Documents

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Anyone who possesses documents from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has a treasure from one of the greatest men to ever grace our country. Ownership, however, can get a bit tricky, especially when family members of Dr. King argue that they belong to family.

Civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte, claimed he owned documents given directly to him by Dr. King, his widow, Coretta Scott King and other close members the family. The three surviving children disputed this claim, which led to a lawsuit filed by Mr. Belafonte in October against Dr. King’s surviving children – Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III, and revolved around three documents given to Mr. Belafonte during his long friendship with Dr. King.

The documents included a three-page handwritten outline for a speech, “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam,” that Dr. King wrote in Mr. Belafonte’s apartment, and delivered in 1967; a letter of condolence from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Mrs. King, and an envelope with notes for a speech, which Dr. King had in his pocket when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

When Belafonte tried to sell the King documents through Sotheby’s, in 2008, to raise money for Barrios Unidos, a charity that works with street gangs, the King family challenged his ownership, saying the documents were “wrongfully acquired.”

The documents were held in a storage vault by Sotheby to avoid liability, until a resolution was reached.

Mr. Belafonte and the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have settled their differences over the ownership of those documents. According to a joint statement by Jonathan S. Abady, Mr. Belafonte’s lawyer, and Michael W. Tyler, the lawyer for Dr. King’s estate, “the parties have reached a compromise, the terms of which are confidential and have resulted in Mr. Belafonte retaining possession of the documents.”

On Friday, a spokeswoman for Sotheby’s said, “We are very pleased to hear that the parties have reached an agreement and anticipate returning the documents to Mr. Belafonte.”

It’s not known what Belafonte plans to do with the documents. Sotheby’s Inc. has held them since 2008 pending resolution of the dispute.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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