Belafonte Puts Rev. King's Notes Up For Auction

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harry Belafonte

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (left) with singer Harry Belafonte, circa 1956, in the basement of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. Belafonte, a friend of the civil rights leader, has decided to bring some of his personal collection of King documents to auction and says he will donate the proceeds "to the disenfranchised." Courtesy of Harry Belafonte hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Harry Belafonte

King Documents Withdrawn

 

On Wednesday, Dec. 10, Sotheby's withdrew from auction the three documents related to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the possession of singer and actor Harry Belafonte. A spokesperson for Sothebys says Belafonte himself asked that the papers be withdrawn.

 

The King estate claims that the documents are estate property. The items were scheduled to go on auction in New York on Thursday, Dec. 11.

 

The documents include a handwritten draft of King's first speech against the war in Vietnam. Another document is a scrap of paper found in King's suit pocket after he was shot with notes for a speech never given. The third is a letter of condolence to Coretta Scott King from President Lyndon Johnson.

 

A statement on behalf of the King estate said that the estate believes the documents were wrongly acquired. The CEO of the King center in Atlanta said the estate was currently in conversations with Sotheby's to establish the truth.

Read a draft of King's "The Casualties of the War In Vietnam."

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Three unusual documents associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King are up for auction at Sotheby's in New York City.

Most of King's papers are now in the hands of King's alma mater, Morehouse College. A couple of years ago, the city of Atlanta bought those papers — more than 10,000 documents.

But the actor and singer Harry Belafonte had several other documents in his possession, and he recently decided to auction them and donate the money to "help the disenfranchised."

There are few Americans over the age of 50 who don't know the name Harry Belafonte. Often called the King of Calypso, he is one of the most successful singers in history. He is now 81 and still singing.

Belafonte was a long-time supporter of King: He helped finance the freedom rides, he bailed King out of jail and he maintained an apartment in New York City that King used often.

"My apartment was a retreat for him," says Belafonte. "He had his own entrance, his own kitchen. The home became, for him, a place where he could think and reside, take his shoes off, have his collar open and be him."

It was at this retreat in February 1967 that King began to draft what many consider one of his most important speeches: The Casualties of War in Vietnam. On three pages of lined yellow legal pad paper, King describes his growing objections to the war in Vietnam.

He described the casualties of the war as more than the death of soldiers and civilians; casualties included the war on poverty and the Great Society, self determination, dissent and humility. The speech was controversial. The New York Times and The Washington Post called it inappropriate. Life magazine described King as a pawn of communists.

But Belafonte says that King saw the two movements — the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement — as "inextricably bound." And Georgia Rep. John Lewis has said that the speech is perhaps even more important than King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

Another document Belafonte is putting up for sale is a small scrap of paper with notes jotted in pen. David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's, describes them as "notes for the speech that Dr. King was going to give in Memphis and they were found in his pocket," after King was assassinated.

The topic was the Poor People's Campaign, a demand for economic justice that began in 1968. The notes on the scrap of paper included a call for the dignity of labor and the phrase, "nothing is gained without sacrifice." King also jotted down a partial modern rephrase of a famous biblical quote. He wrote, "What does it profit to be able to eat in an integrated restaurant and not make enough money to take the wife out?"

Belafonte says that King jotted notes everywhere he went, "whether it was on a scrap of paper [or] magazine edges." Belafonte adds that King's famous 1963 speech, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," was at times "even written on toilet paper."

Another document going to auction is the condolence letter that President Lyndon Johnson sent to Coretta Scott King after her husband's death. Belafonte reportedly stood by Coretta King at the graveside and the widow gave Belafonte the letter at the end of the service.

All the items are being auctioned along with a large collection of fine papers and manuscripts — everything from letters by Mark Twain to the manuscript of Arthur C. Clark's science fiction novel Childhood's End. Altogether, Sotheby's estimates that the King documents could go for between $700,000 and $1.1 million.

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