Legendary singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte has filed a federal lawsuit against the three surviving children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., The New York Times reports.
The 86-year-old — known for singing "The Banana Boat Song," with the trademark "Day-O" lyric — was a close friend of King in the Civil Rights Movement era. Now he’s caught up in a dispute with King’s heirs over some of King’s documents and other memorabilia.
"At issue are three documents that used to be in Mr. Belafonte’s collection of memorabilia, along with other photos and letters on the walls of his apartment, chronicling his long friendship with Dr. King," The Times reports. "Mr. Belafonte says the papers were given to him by Dr. King himself; by his widow, Coretta Scott King; and by Dr. King’s close aide Stanley Levison."
King’s heirs, Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III, say the material belongs to King’s estate and was taken without permission.
"Mr. Belafonte, who often supported the King family financially during the civil rights struggle, said the dispute pains him. He said in his view, Dr. King’s children had drifted away from their father’s values," the story reports.
Said Belafonte: “The papers are symbolic. It’s really about what happened to the children, and I feel that somewhere, in this one area, I really failed Martin.”
The report adds: "One of the documents is a three-page outline for Dr. King’s 1967 speech ‘The Casualties of the War in Vietnam,’ written on a legal pad in Mr. Belafonte’s New York apartment. The second is a letter of condolence from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Mrs. King. The third is an envelope Dr. King had in his pocket the day he was assassinated in 1968. On it he had scribbled notes for a speech he was to give in Memphis."
Belafonte made an attempt to sell the documents in an auction in 2008 — a move that he says was an effort to raise money for charity.
"Before the sale could go forward, however, Dr. King’s estate challenged Mr. Belafonte’s ownership of the papers that same month, charging in a letter to Sotheby’s that they are ‘part of a wrongfully acquired collection,’" the story reports. "Since then, the documents have been in limbo, sitting in the auction house’s storage vault while attempts to settle the dispute out of court have failed. Under state law, Sotheby’s faces liability to the actual owner if it releases property to the wrong party, and so has refused to return the documents to Mr. Belafonte until the dispute is settled."