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Belafonte And MLK Family Take Memorabilia Dispute To Court


We'd like to turn now to a different subject, a painful one for those who follow the history of the civil rights movement. What we want to tell you about a lawsuit filed by the famed entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte. He filed suit last Tuesday against the three surviving children of Martin Luther King Jr. At issue is a document - well, actually, three documents - that were formally part of Belafonte's collection of photos, letters and memorabilia that chronicled his friendship with Dr. King.

The singer and activist says the papers were given to him by Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. The surviving King children, Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III, claimed the documents were wrongfully taken and belong to the estate. We wanted to learn more about all this, so we've call David Garrow. His biography of King, called "Bearing the Cross," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. He teaches history and law at the University of Pittsburgh, and he joins us from WQED. Professor Garrow, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVID GARROW: It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: And I do want to say that we contacted Harry Belafonte and the King family and their representatives, and all of them said that they're not giving interviews at this time on this subject. So we wanted to ask you, could you tell us about the three documents at issue here?

GARROW: Certainly. One of them is an early outline for one of Dr. King's most famous 1967 speeches denouncing U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. One of the other documents are some notes that were in his pocket when he was shot and killed in April of 1968 and that were passed on to Mr. Belafonte by Mrs. King. And then the third is the original letter of condolence written by President Lyndon Johnson to Mrs. King that she gave to Mr. Belafonte years later. It's important to stress that Mr. Belafonte, though he's most famous as a singer and entertainer throughout the 1960s, was a very selfless supporter, not just of Dr. King, but of the wider civil rights movement. And so Mr. Belafonte was a first-hand participant in scores and scores of conversations and strategy meetings during all of those years.

MARTIN: So Harry Belafonte tried to sell these documents in 2008. As I understand it, he wanted to raise money for a charity that he supports called Barrios Unidos. But that sale was then stopped by the King estate at that time, challenging his ownership of the papers. So what's been happening since then?

GARROW: The documents have been sitting at this auction house in New York. Mr. Belafonte, as you quite appropriately highlighted, was selling - wants to sell - these few items to raise money for a good cause. But the King estate, the King children, have followed this same strategy in other instances, as well, most notably in filing suit against Dr. King's former secretary - his secretary in the 1950s, the years of the Montgomery Bus Boycott - Maude Ballou, who's still alive. Ms. Ballou and her husband were good personal friends of Dr. and Mrs. King, just like Mr. Belafonte.

And they, too, quite normally, understandably had ended up with a collection of items dating back to those years that the King estate hadn't known about. And the King estate filed suit in federal court several years ago trying to get those back, alleging - just as they have with Mr. Belafonte - that these were somehow wrongly acquired. And not surprisingly, both a federal trial court and then the Court of Appeals sided with Mrs. Ballou, saying that these are her rightful property.

MARTIN: Well, you make a point that I wanted to ask about here, which is that - and just to tie a bow on that Maude Ballou case that the papers were actually auctioned off last week for more than $130,000 - that the King family has been engaged in a highly aggressive strategy to regain control of these kinds of documents. I mean, this lawsuit is not the first. What do you know about why they've adopted this stance? Do we know why?

GARROW: I think Mrs. King and the children, in the years after his death, developed the attitude that they were entitled to some, you know, posthumous benefits for what the whole family went through during the years when he was alive.

MARTIN: One could make an argument that, you know, here is a person who left very young children when he was killed - a young wife, four young children who were going to grow up without him. The youngest would not know him at all, would have no personal memories of him, and that this was a very precarious circumstance that they were left in, that they're zealous about making sure that their own - that they are financially well-taken care of. I mean, do you - I take it you have no sympathy for that perspective at all.

GARROW: It's a balance that has shifted over time. The person who pushed to be sure that Dr. King had a life insurance policy in the late '60s was ironically none other than Harry Belafonte. While Mrs. King herself lived very modestly, remained in the same home, that over the last now 12 to 15 years, the King estate - i.e. the three surviving King children - have raked in tens of millions of dollars from commercial efforts based on Dr. King's work.

MARTIN: But is that not their right?

GARROW: You're quite right, Michel, that as a question of right, they have that right. To me, as a historian, and I think to virtually all of the surviving veterans of the civil rights movement, the crucial, central question is not a question of legal right or legal power, but how does this behavior compare to the ethical legacy of Dr. King himself? And it's the conflict between what his life and his legacy represents and their behavior - the children's behavior. That's what so stark and so painful. It's, you know, even more publicly tragic when someone very well-known, like Mr. Belafonte, who was such a selfless supporter of the movement, is himself then targeted by the King children. And they won't even personally speak to him.

MARTIN: Do you have a prediction about what will happen in this case?

GARROW: I believe it's really 100 percent certain that the court will find for Mr. Belafonte. There is no plausible, indeed, imaginable contradiction of his accounts that he was given - personally given these documents by Dr. King and Mrs. King. And the estate simply has no historical credibility to match up against the tremendous historical credibility and contributions of someone like Harry Belafonte.

MARTIN: I do want to emphasize again that we reached out both to Mr. Belafonte and to representatives of the King family to get their perspective on this matter, and all of those parties declined to speak with us today. David Garrow is research professor of history and law at the University of Pittsburgh and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and he joined us from WQED in Pittsburgh. David Garrow, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GARROW: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.