The Complicated History Between Harry Belafonte And The King Family

Harry Belafonte, who died in late April 2023 at the age of 96, was more than just an actor and singer, The New York Times writes. He was also a civil rights activist, and as such, he had a close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. Through that friendship, Belafonte supported King's causes. Among other examples, King stayed in Belafonte's Manhattan apartment, and Belafonte also maintained an insurance policy on King's life, with the Baptist minister's friend's family named the beneficiaries. In 1968, King was shot and killed by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee.

The friendship between Belafonte and MLK aside, tensions between the singer and the estate of the civil rights icon worsened in 2013. At that time, Belafonte brought a lawsuit against the King estate, CNN reports. Belafonte planned to sell some of King's documents in his possession, and proceeds of the fundraising auction at Sotheby's would benefit Barrios Unidos, a charity Belafonte supported.

According to King's children, though, the items weren't his to sell. The lawsuit, which sought to establish ownership between Belafonte and King's family, was settled out of court. The details were kept private, Reuters writes.

Belafonte said the items were given to him by MLK or his associates

Three items were at the core of the 2013 disagreement between Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr.'s estate: a draft version of one of King's most well-known speeches, notes for a speech that MLK reportedly had on him when he died, and a condolence letter from then President Lyndon B. Johnson to MLK's wife — Coretta Scott King — when her husband was killed. King was known to give such items away, and according to Belafonte, everything he planned to sell at Sotheby's was given to him either by King himself, by an associate of the civil rights leader, or by his widow, who died in 2006.

According to King's estate (per The Guardian), the items in Belafonte's possession were "wrongly acquired." Items purportedly belonging to Belafonte were disputed once before when Belafonte family members attempted to anonymously auction them off at a Beverly Hills auction house. In 2006, the King Estate itself controversially tried to put items belonging to MLK up for auction at Sotheby's. That auction was blocked when an Atlanta non-profit raised funds to buy them. Those items are now housed at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where King attended.

Belafonte's relationship with King Jr.'s family first soured in 2006

Another sour note struck between Harry Belafonte and the King estate came in 2006. That year, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, died, and Belafonte was called upon to give eulogy. At first it was reported that Belafonte was disinvited from Scott King's service once it was announced that then-President George H.W. Bush would also attend and speak at the event. Belafonte had been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, Democracy Now! reports.

According to the Chicago Defender (via the Los Angeles Times), MLK Jr.'s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, later called Belafonte's absence from Scott King's memorial a "big mistake." King III (pictured) said: "There was a big mix-up. It certainly didn't have anything to do with President Bush being there." According to Belafonte, though, the move to bar him from the service came straight from the White House. 

The 2013 disagreement between Belafonte and King's family was just one of many failed attempts to regain control of several King documents in the possession of those who knew him, NPR reports. One such lawsuit involved King's secretary, Maude Ballou. A federal court ruled in her favor.