Can’t We Just Get Along? Breaking Down The Courtroom Beef Between Harry Belafonte & MLK, Jr’s Children

Mita Carriman Music/Entertainment attorney, empress of contracts, Okayplayer contributer. @mitacarriman


Never thought we’d see the day come (no “Day-O” jokes, please) that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s family and Calypso-King Harry Belafonte would be squaring out beef against each other in court, but that’s unfortunately the sad reality of what unfolded earlier this week in Manhattan’s Federal District Court. Though many of us know of Mr. Belafonte, age 86, as the graceful living icon who heralded mainland America’s early exposure to Caribbean music, starred in a string of groundbreaking films for black actors in the 50’s such as Carmen Jones and Island in the Sunand even produced one of hip-hop’s first films Beat Streat in 1984. Belafonte should be remembered first and last for his involvement with civil rights.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Belafonte parlayed his unprecedented success (his 1956 album Calypso was the first LP to sell more than a million copies, before there even were categorizations like ‘platinum’) into support for the civil rights movement, famously flying to Mississippi with Sydney Poitier  with $60,000 in cash–the operating budget for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Comittee for the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. He became a close confident of MLK, Jr. – so close, that Dr. King and his wife Corretta Scott King allegedly entrusted Belafonte with three valuable documents which embody the source of the current contention between Belafonte and the children of Dr. King in Court.

At the risk of sounding slightly crass, the three documents at issue definitely qualify as some Smithsonian-worthy-type-shit, so it’s  no surprise that everything ended up in court, considering. Specifically, its been reported that the three documents include an outline of the famous Vietnam War speech by Dr. King; notes to a speech Dr. King never got to deliver in Memphis, Tennessee on the day of his assassination; and a condolence letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Corretta Scott King after Dr. King’s assassination.

According to Belafonte, he claims he rightfully and lawfully came into possession of the Vietnam related speech outline when Dr. King left it at Belafonte’s apartment; that he received the assassination-day notes via  grant from a will in 1979 from a close confidant of Dr. King’s; and lastly, that Corretta Scott King personally gave him the Lyndon B. Johnson Letter. While these documents are likely going to rack up hundreds of thousands–possibly millions–of dollars, Belafonte has allegedly planned to donate the proceeds to Barrios Unidos, a Santa-Cruz based non-profit charity that seeks to prevent and curtail gang violence amongst youth.

The general feeling that most people seem to feel from this story, is plain-old disturbed. Its disturbing that these two lauded historical fixtures, Belafonte, and the King family, are at odds with each other, and we can only hope that the story finds a peaceful and fair resolution soon. Because, isn’t that how Dr. King would have wanted it.  Stay tuned for more info on this case as information continues to trickle down from the “mountain tops” of the federal court.

In the meanwhile, check out a video clip of Harry Belafonte speaking about Dr. King’s last days via The Black Power Mixtape documentary:

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