Great man — Harry Belafonte, the calypso singer, sued the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr, the African American civil rights activist. Mr Belafonte had in his possession important documents of Dr King’s, which he attempted to auction some years ago to raise money for a charity. He was prevented from doing so by Dr King’s family and estate, which claimed he had acquired the documents wrongfully.
Dr King’s estate had also previously sued his secretary, Maude Ballou, claiming documents in her possession, were rightfully theirs, and previous to that, unsuccessfully sued Boston university for personal papers from Dr King’s graduate school days. The family clearly feels they own both the material as well as intellectual property that has grown from the life and work of Martin Luther King, including his famous speech ‘I Have a Dream’, which the family also sued the daily US Today for printing.
Though the lawsuit-happy ways of those who believe so strongly in ownership and right wing intellectual property rights approaches are easy to dismiss, such stories always leave one with questions about why this is happening, so extreme does it seem.
The fact that one man became a touchstone for a nation and gave his life and his death to a cause makes us claim him as ours — Mahatma Gandhi would be just such an example. Yet, perhaps it is as fair to ask what the person gave and left for their families. Were they not neglected for this ‘larger’ cause — a story we routinely encounter whether in the case of political or artistic figures? Hence, is it so surprising that descendents almost neurotically wish to claim this lost family member in every way, even as the world asserts that he, in fact, belongs to everybody?
Yet, people do not survive through or with family alone. Along the way they form many other relationships — friendships and work alliances which become their support structure. Harry Belafonte is said to have supported Dr King and his family from time to time during his political struggles — financially, but surely the support also provided strength on a difficult path.
As his secretary, Ms Balou too contributed to making his work possible. If Dr King’s papers are not simply public property, then surely these persons, as associates have a right and a claim too?
The case of the King papers raises issues of both value and relationships. On the one hand, should such papers be usable for public good or accrue to a private estate only? And should only the blood family have a right to this heritage, or relationships that are not of blood count too?
Perhaps ties of blood and balance sheets are both comforting in their way because they seem clear, unambiguous. But can we really afford to decide the value of things — and people quite in these ways? If profit is absolutely the way things can be found valuable, then the logical conclusion would be a society in which we decide the value of all relationships on the basis of the measurable gain they bring.
Yet, the truth is, we do not function only by that rationale, vital as it is to survival. We survive also through a number of intuitive value systems — love, respect and admiration and the functional systems these values generate of sharing, partnerships, barter and collectives.
The King papers controversy only re-emphasises the need to combine these approaches if we want to build societies that realise the dreams of freedom and equality espoused by figures like Martin Luther King.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.