An ongoing controversy in the auction world took another turn recently when famed singer and activist Harry Belafonte sued the family of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. to regain rights to three historic papers he claims were given to him by Dr. King, Dr. King's wife Coretta and Dr. King's former associate Stanley Levinson.
History of the dispute
The issue first came gained public exposure in 2008 when Belafonte took the papers to be appraised in preparation for selling them at auction. At that time, Dr. King's family claimed that Belafonte wasn't the rightful owner of the documents.
Since then, the documents have lingered in storage while both parties tried to reach a deal, but those talks appear to have broken down now that Belafonte has brought his lawsuit and asked that the federal court in Manhattan rule they are his personal property.
Belafonte was a close friend and supporter of Dr. King throughout the civil rights era, and he came into possession of the three documents around the time of Dr. King's assassination in 1968. They include a three-page outline of Dr. King's 1967 speech, "The Casualties of the War in Vietnam," which was written on a legal pad in Belafonte's apartment in New York City; a letter of condolence written by President Lyndon Johnson to Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, shortly after Dr. King's death; and an envelope Dr. King was carrying in his pocket on the morning he was shot, which contained notes on a speech he planned to give that day in Memphis.
Belafonte claims he wanted to sell the documents as part of a collectibles auction in order to raise money for the Barrios Unidos charity organization, which works with street gangs in an effort to eliminate violence.
King memorabilia has caused previous auction controversies
According to The New York Times, this is far from the first time that an attempt to auction off pieces of King memorabilia has led to a legal challenge from the King estate.
In 1986, Coretta Scott King unsuccessfully sued Boston University, where King received his Ph.D, to try to regain ownership of approximately 83,000 documents the late reverend had given to the school in the mid 1960s.
Then, in 2011, the King estate filed a lawsuit in order to prevent Dr. King's former secretary, Maude Ballou, from selling off about 100 documents, notes, letters and speeches that were written by the doctor at an antiques auction.
That effort was again unsuccessful, as Ballou and her son were able to show that she was given the documents by Dr. King when she worked for him in the 1950s, and the federal judge overseeing the case ruled that the estate had missed out on the statute of limitations to reclaim them. That statute of limitations ruling could also come to bear on the Belafonte case.
The many issues over the auctioning of items related to Dr. King shows just how remarkable of a legacy the reverend has, and the complexities of trying to manage that legacy.
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