Image: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this Oct. 24, 1966 file photo, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is shown in Atlanta.
updated 12/8/2008 8:05:51 PM ET 2008-12-09T01:05:51

An original handwritten outline for Martin Luther King Jr.'s first speech condemning the Vietnam War, owned by his friend Harry Belafonte, is going on the auction block this week.

Sotheby's will offer the document for sale Thursday along with two others: the scribbled notes for a speech King planned to deliver in Memphis, three days after he was assassinated, and a letter of condolence from President Lyndon B. Johnson to King's widow.

The auction house put the overall pre-sale estimate for the three documents at $750,000 to $1.13 million, with the Vietnam speech valued at $500,000 to $800,000.

Belafonte, a singer and actor, was an early disciple of King and his host on King's visits to New York dating from the mid-1950s.

In a telephone interview, Belafonte said he was putting his documents up for sale because "I am at the end of my life — I will be 82 shortly — and there are a lot of causes I believe in for which resources are not available, and there is a need to redistribute those resources."

Selby Kiffer, a senior manuscripts curator at Sotheby's, said the anti-war speech possibly ranks in importance with King's most famous papers: his "I Have a Dream" speech, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and a draft of his Nobel Prize acceptance address.

Kiffer and Elizabeth Muller, a Sotheby's expert on manuscripts who in 2006 discovered a printed version of the jail letter, said the Belafonte papers were previously unknown to King archivists.

Some 10,000 King documents that his family had planned to auction at Sotheby's in 2006 were bought for $32 million by the city of Atlanta and are housed at King's alma mater, Morehouse College. Another King collection is at Boston University.

Speaking out against the war
King wrote the first draft of his Vietnam speech in ink on three sheets from a yellow legal pad and left it behind at Belafonte's apartment when he went to Los Angeles to deliver the finished remarks on Feb. 25, 1967, before a hotel crowd of Hollywood celebrities and four U.S. senators who also had denounced the war.

The speech, titled "The Casualties of the War in Vietnam," cited, along with military and civilian victims, a loss of moral principle, resources diverted from the fight for civil rights and the war's effect in alienating other nations from the United States.

The Memphis notes, found in King's pocket after he was gunned down April 4, 1968, on the balcony of a Memphis motel, were given by Coretta Scott King to the late Stan Levison, a close friend who then gave them to Belafonte.

In the notes, King praises the city's sanitation workers for striking against "starvation wages" — the cause that had brought him to Memphis. "What does it profit to be able to eat in an integrated restaurant and not make enough money to take the wife out?" he asks.

Johnson's letter of condolence tells Mrs. King that the "full powers of local and federal authority" had been committed to finding her husband's killer, and "we will overcome this calamity and continue the work of justice and love that is Martin Luther King's legacy."

She gave the letter to Belafonte after the funeral service, where he stood at her side.

'Part of his mission'
Belafonte said his personal relationship with King began in early 1956 when the preacher was invited to speak at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, then led by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, and Belafonte went to hear him.

King hoped to gain Belafonte's support in spreading the civil rights gospel in the entertainment industry. After the sermon, Belafonte and King met in the church basement, sitting at a table for what Belafonte had expected would be 20 minutes.

"Four hours later we emerged, and I knew then I would be part of his mission," he said.

Belafonte said he later opened his apartment to King, providing a private suite and entrance for King's use on his visits to New York. Officials, journalists and civil rights activists met King at what was an all-but-undisclosed location.

Belafonte said "confidentiality was required" to keep his own celebrity as an entertainer from obscuring the message and the cause that King was pursuing.

"It was not my mission," he said. "I didn't need to be seen. I needed to be felt."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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