(Reuters) - U.S. singer and social activist Harry Belafonte has sued the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. in a dispute over ownership of documents that Belafonte said were given to him by the late civil rights leader and his wife, according to court documents filed on Tuesday.
In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New York, Belafonte asks the court to declare him the owner of three documents associated with King and his widow, Coretta Scott King, and to bar King’s estate and youngest daughter, Bernice King, permanently from trying to claim ownership of the items.
The disputed documents are an outline of King’s “Casualties of the War in Vietnam” speech that Belafonte said he has had in his possession since 1967, the “Memphis Speech” that was undelivered and found in one of King’s suit pockets after his 1968 assassination, and a condolence letter that President Lyndon Johnson sent to King’s widow after King’s death.
King’s estate and Bernice King disputed Belafonte’s ownership of the documents when the singer took the items to Sotheby’s auction house in New York to be appraised and put up for sale in 2008, the lawsuit said.
The items were withdrawn from auction after King’s estate and Bernice King said Belafonte had “wrongfully acquired” them, and they remain in Sotheby’s possession, according to court documents.
Belafonte’s lawsuit asks the court to declare that the documents were not taken wrongfully and to order that they be returned to him.
Belafonte, 86, known as the “King of Calypso” for his Caribbean-infused songs, was a close friend and supporter of King up until the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn.
Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy in Los Angeles; Editing by Eric Kelsey and Paul Simao