Harry Belafonte Fights MLK Heirs for King Papers
Harry Belafonte is embroiled in a legal battle with the family of Martin Luther King over ownership rights to valuable historical documents that the musician-actor says were given to him.
A Falling Out
The saga includes King’s family first suing Belafonte in 2008, according to CNN, to stop him from auctioning off the papers, which include an outline of one of King’s famous speeches as well as notes King had in his pocket the day he was shot in Memphis in 1968.
Belafonte says King and his wife Coretta gave him the documents long ago as gifts, and he is now suing their children — Bernice King, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III — to claim ownership rights to them. His suit reportedly notes that attempts by the family to reclaim documents from others have been unsuccessful.
Belafonte began a close relationship with the King family during the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s. But the friendship had frayed by 2006, when the three children told Belafonte not to speak at Coretta’s funeral. Then-President George W. Bush had announced he was attending, and Belafonte was an outspoken critic of the president.
Timing Is Everything
Belafonte’s case centers around the legal concept of a gift, and his success will likely depend on the timing of that gift — whether it was made before or after King’s death.
“If a document was given as a gift during a person’s lifetime, the recipient is the sole owner of the document and the testator’s heirs would not have a claim against that gift,” explains Lisa Wilcox, a business and wills and estates lawyer with Wilcox Law in St. Petersburg, Fla.
One of the documents at issue in Belafonte’s case was allegedly not given to him until after Dr. King had died, she explains.
If Coretta was the heir who was supposed to receive the document, then she would have been the rightful owner and would have been permitted to do with the property as she wished, Wilcox says. It likely would have been inherited by her children if that were the case.
Back to the Auction Block?
Belafonte is also saying that any claim the King children may have to the documents themselves has expired, meaning they didn’t file a lawsuit in time to make a rightful claim, Wilcox adds. This refers back to their 2008 attempt to stop the auction of the documents.
“In New York, there is generally a three-year time period to file a lawsuit to reclaim possession of stolen personal property,” she notes. “Belafonte’s argument is that he received these papers more than three years prior to the date of the estate’s lawsuit, thus preventing the Kings from filing a lawsuit now.”
That 2008 suit is not over, however. “The Kings were successful in stopping the auction because the question of who rightfully owns the documents that were to be auctioned still must be decided by a judge,” Wilcox explains. Because there was litigation over the ownership, the auction was temporarily halted.
“Only when and if the court determines that Belafonte is the true owner can he then proceed with the auction,” she says, adding that Sotheby’s is also involved in that suit “because it would potentially be liable if it releases the documents to a wrongful owner.”
Bits of History
Would this case be any different if the documents at issue were not such historically significant artifacts? “Individuals are permitted to make gifts of historical artifacts,” Wilcox answers. “While there are various state and federal laws governing certain archaeological sites and historical artifacts, these documents would not fall under these categories.”
“These historical documents are privately owned and the fact that they hold historical significance does not make this battle any different than if it were between people who are not in the public eye,” she says.
That being said, while it’s always impossible to predict what will happen with Belafonte’s case, she says “it is telling that the estate has recently been unsuccessful in bringing similar challenges against other recipients of Dr. King’s gifts.”
“If the estate fails to prove that the gifts were stolen, Belafonte has a strong likelihood of success in this case,” concludes Wilcox.