Renaming King County to Honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  • By Michael Schein
  • Posted 8/10/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11261

King County, Washington's largest county, is the first county in the nation to be named in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), the celebrated civil rights leader and advocate of nonviolence. The county has been "King County" since it was created in 1852, before the establishment of Washington Territory, by the Oregon Territorial Legislature. However it was originally named in honor of William Rufus de Vane King (1786-1853), who was elected vice president the year of its creation. Among other things, William King was a slaveholder. In 1986, the King County Council passed a motion naming the county in honor of Martin Luther King. That action went relatively unnoticed until 1999, when councilmember Larry Gossett (b. 1945) moved to replace the county's crown logo with an image of Dr. King. In the debate, it was noted that only the state legislature had the power to rename a county. Efforts to pass the necessary legislation succeeded in 2005, officially renaming the county for Martin Luther King. After a design process, a new logo was unveiled in 2007. Dr. King's likeness was phased in gradually over the ensuing five years as the official county flag and emblem.

Formation and Original Namesake of King County

King County is a large county in western Washington that covers 2,100 square miles, ranging from Puget Sound and Vashon Island in the west to the crest of the Cascade Range in the east, from just north of Tacoma and Naches Pass in the south to Skykomish, Duvall, and Lake Forest Park in the north. As of 2007, it was the 12th-largest county in the United States. Home to Seattle, Washington's largest city, King County had more than 1.9 million people as of 2012, making it the most populous county in the state.

King County was created and named by the Oregon Territorial Legislature on December 22, 1852, a few months before Washington Territory was carved out of Oregon Territory. In the November 1852 presidential election, Democrat Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) had defeated General Winfield Scott (1786-1866). Pierce's vice president was a United States senator from Alabama named William Rufus de Vane King. To honor Pierce and King, and probably to curry favor with the incoming administration, Colonel Isaac Ebey (1818-1857) of Whidbey Island proposed to name two new counties along Puget Sound "Pierce" and "King" counties, respectively, and the Oregon Territorial Legislature agreed.

William King owned a large cotton plantation near Selma, Alabama, called Chestnut Hill, including an estimated 500 slaves. John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) -- a determined early foe of slavery -- referred to King as a "gentle slave-monger" (Roberts), although there was nothing "gentle" in the inherent violence of owning another human being. Adams likely meant that King treated his slaves well by the standards of the time.

King had many accomplishments. During the late 1830s into the 1840s, he regularly acted as president pro tempore of the United States Senate, and during this time he was considered a strong candidate for the vice presidency at several Democratic Party conventions, although each time he lost out to other candidates. As American ambassador to France from 1844 to 1846, King facilitated the annexation of Texas. As a U.S. senator for 34 years, he emerged as a strong advocate for continued union, and worked with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay to forge the Compromise of 1850, which, although it helped to avoid outright civil war for another decade, included a strengthened version of the hated Fugitive Slave Act. He was generally admired among his colleagues, and known for his honesty and personal modesty.

King was too ill with tuberculosis to appear in Washington, D.C., on inauguration day, March 4, 1853. By special dispensation of Congress, on March 24, 1853, he became the only vice president to take the oath of office outside the United States, when it was administered to him in Cuba. The trip to Cuba was intended for his health, but King died two days after returning to his Alabama plantation, on April 18, 1853. He never got back to Washington, and never began to perform the duties of vice president. He also never visited the other Washington -- the Pacific Northwest territory created on March 2, 1853, with the county bearing his name.

Ironically, it was William King who named the town of Selma, Alabama, which Martin Luther King would make famous 112 years after the earlier King's death.

King County Council Acts in 1986

In 1985, Ron Sims became the first African American elected to the King County Council. At the suggestion of journalist Shelby Scates (1931-2013), "who believed that the county's name should symbolize justice and equality which the Reverend Dr. King fought for" ("King County is renamed ..."), Sims decided to propose a motion to rename King County after Martin Luther King. Although not the primary motivation for the renaming effort, unlike the original namesake, Dr. King had actually visited King County. The civil rights leader spent November 8 to 11, 1961, in Seattle, where Mount Zion Baptist Church sponsored his lectures on creative nonviolent protest against racial segregation, given at the University of Washington, Temple de Hirsch, Garfield High School, and the Eagles Auditorium.

With Republican Bruce C. Laing (b. 1932) joining Sims as co-sponsor, Sims' motion came up for a vote before the county council on February 24, 1986. The motion made it clear that its purpose was to replace a slaveholder with a champion of racial justice:

"WHEREAS, William Rufus DeVane King was a slaveowner ..., and
WHEREAS, the citizens of King County believe that the ownership of another human being is an injustice against humanity, and
WHEREAS, William Rufus DeVane King earned income and maintained his lifestyle by oppressing and exploiting other human beings, and ...
WHEREAS, the citizens of King County through their various faiths uphold the principle that all mankind was created equal, and
WHEREAS, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that liberty, justice and freedom were the 'inalienable rights' of all men, women and children, and
WHEREAS, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a spiritual man who believed all people were created equal in the sight of God, and
WHEREAS, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in the dignity and self-worth of every individual, and subsequently, gave his life defending his beliefs, and
WHEREAS, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a recipient of the Nobel Prize became a national hero whose birthday has been declared a national holiday by his nation's government to be a day of peace, love and understanding, and
WHEREAS, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through his persistent and unfailing efforts prompted passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which have benefited all citizens of this nation, and
WHEREAS, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired people and nations world-wide to strive in a non-violent manner for the human rights, civil liberties, and economic guarantees rightfully due people of all races;
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT MOVED by the Council of King County: The King County Council, hereby, sets forth the historical basis for the "renaming" of King County in honor of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ...
BE IT FURTHER MOVED, King County shall be named after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." ("Motion No. 6461").

The motion did not sail through unopposed. One councilmember stated that the council should "leave the historical record alone" (Verhovek). Several citizens defended the slaveholding vice president, with one calling "him a 'marvelous man' who cared deeply about adequate housing and 'proper nutrition' for his slaves" (Verhovek), and another presenting the argument that back in the original King's time, "it was no different to own a slave than it is today to own a microwave" (Anderson). A snarky Seattle Times piece said, "I'm sure we all feel much better now that the King County Council has changed the name of King County to King County," and finished by asking, "when are we going to rename our state after Booker T. Washington, and dump that other slave-owning, historical-blemish, George Washington" (Anderson).

On the other side of the debate, the proponents pointed out that Martin Luther King was a symbol of freedom and racial equality and a Nobel peace prize laureate, while William King was a slaveholder who enriched himself by a system now universally acknowledged as an injustice against humanity.

The final vote was razor-thin, five to four, but the motion passed. In addition to the social-justice rationale, the effort was aided by the argument that it would cost nothing, since neither signs nor county records needed to be changed. Perhaps because the motion was viewed as purely symbolic, it soon faded from memory.

First Efforts to Change County Logo

Fast forward to 1999. Ron Sims was by then King County Executive, and Larry Gossett (b. 1945) was now the only African American member of the county council. Gossett proposed that, since the county was named after Martin Luther King, the county logo depicting a king's crown should be changed to a likeness of Dr. King. Chris Vance (b. 1962), a Republican councilmember, responded, ''This county is not named after Martin Luther King Jr. We all like to pretend it is, but it's really not" (Verhovek). Vance explained that the 1986 county council motion was not effective, because only the Washington legislature has the power to change the name of a county.

Another concern over a logo change was cost, such that even some Democrats -- including County Executive Sims, the original sponsor of the name-change motion in 1986 -- were noncommittal. Maggie Fimia, a Democrat, was quoted as saying, "As important as symbols are, this could wind up being a very low priority compared to the delivery of services. The ones that could be most affected by budget cuts are the very people that Martin Luther King spoke for" (Verhovek).

Perhaps the most surprising element of the debate, however, was raised by a Seattle lawyer, Jason Kelly. Kelly noted that William King was probably homosexual, which would have made him in all likelihood the first gay American vice president. If true, then as the county moved toward honoring an African American the concern was that it might be disrespecting the gay community.

The Washington Blade, a Washington, D.C., publication that bills itself as "America's Leading LGBT News Source," wrote of King in 2011: "A lifelong bachelor, King lived for 15 years in the home of future U.S. president James Buchanan [1791-1868] while the two served in the Senate. Buchanan, also a lifelong bachelor, is believed by some historians to be the nation's first gay president" (Chibbaro). President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) reportedly called King "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy," and Buchanan's postmaster general is said to have described King as Buchanan's "wife." Although the nieces of the two men are believed to have destroyed the Buchanan-King correspondence, one surviving letter from Buchanan, written after King left for France to serve as U.S. ambassador, reads: "I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them" (Chibbaro).

Gossett argued that "[t]he renaming and logo-altering efforts had everything to do with honoring Martin Luther King and nothing to do with dissing the other King," and that William King's sexual orientation was "irrelevant" (Roberts). But Dan Savage, one of Seattle's best-known LGBT activists, seemed content to "diss" the other King, saying "anybody in the 19th century who owned slaves when they should have known better is by definition a bad gay person" (Roberts). The issue turned on the very different legacies left by the two Kings. Most people were aware that Dr. King was a crusader for racial equality and nonviolent social change but, if gay, William King was a closeted gay man not known to have done anything to try to change the gender politics of his time. The original naming of King County had nothing to do with equal rights for an oppressed minority, and was simply an effort to seek political favor with the new administration. The renaming, however, had everything to do with celebrating social justice and inspiring future generations.

The 2005 Legislation

The campaign to honor Dr. King shifted to the state legislature. Democratic state senator Adam Kline (b. 1944), from the 37th District in Southeast Seattle, sponsored legislation seeking to rename King County a total of eight times before it passed in 2005. The bill that finally passed, Senate Bill 5332, was lead sponsored by Kline in the Senate and by his 37th District Democratic colleague, state representative Eric Pettigrew (b. 1960), in the House of Representatives.

On March 8, 2005, SB 5332 passed unanimously -- 47 to 0 -- in the Senate. Prior to the vote, the Senate rejected a perhaps-fanciful amendment proposed by Republican senator Joyce Mulliken, from the 13th District in Eastern Washington around Ephrata, which would have redesignated King County as "King State" "with all the rights and privileges of statehood" ("SB 5332 -- S Amd by Senator Mulliken").

It was a tougher fight on April 5, 2005, when SB 5332 came up for a final vote in the House. Although a majority of the State Government and Affairs Committee had recommended passage, a minority report signed by Republican representatives Troy Nixon from the 45th District and Lynn Schindler from the 4th District, disagreed. Before a final vote could be taken, name-change supporters had to fight off an amendment by Representative Nixon that would have sent the entire renaming issue to county voters. After that was defeated, the bill passed the House by a vote of 64 to 31. The King County website described passage of the bill as the result of "a monumental grassroots community effort in which thousands of King County residents demanded during a six-year period (1999-2005) that the State Legislature and the Governor formally rename the County in Dr. King's honor" ("Martin Luther King Logo").

On April 19, 2005, Governor Christine Gregoire signed SB 5332 at a ceremony held at the King County Courthouse. According to Governor Gregoire's statement at the time of signing:

"When Rev. King visited Seattle in 1961, the people of King County welcomed him with open arms. He inspired them to fight against discrimination and injustice. ... I hope that the name King County will inspire coming generations to keep up that fight" ("Governor Gregoire Signs Bill").

In fact, while certainly many in King County welcomed Dr. King with open arms in 1961, not all did so. Leaders of the First Presbyterian Church, which had agreed to rent its sanctuary to Mount Zion Baptist Church, canceled its agreement when it learned that the speaker would be King. This action was widely condemned among local religious and community organizations, and other venues were quickly found.

The new law took effect July 24, 2005. It stated simply: "King county is renamed in honor of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr." (2005 Wash. Laws, ch. 90). More than 19 years after Sims' first efforts, and 44 years after Dr. King's visit to Seattle, King County had a new namesake more fitting to its ideals and aspirations.

A New Face for King County

There was still one unfinished bit of business, however: Gossett's 1999 proposal to change the King County logo from a king's crown to an image of Dr. King had lapsed without a vote. According to the county website, after the new state law made the name change official, "people all over our County put tremendous political pressure on the King County Council to change our County logo from an imperial crown to the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." ("Martin Luther King Logo "). An ordinance to accomplish this was introduced by Gossett, cosponsored by Larry Phillips (b. 1951), on November 14, 2005. It was immediately referred to committee, and although it came up for discussion a few times thereafter, no action was taken by the council until a hearing on February 27, 2006. After discussion and votes on various amendments, the ordinance passed by a vote of seven in favor and two opposed. Gossett, Phillips, Pete von Reichbauer, Julia Patterson, Dow Constantine, Bob Ferguson, and Reagan Dunn voted yes, with Jane Hague and Kathy Lambert opposed.

The ordinance mentioned William King's history of slaveholding and support for the Fugitive Slave Act and noted that the reason the county was named for the vice president-elect was to seek political favor from an administration long gone. Its statement of facts recited the history of county and state efforts toward renaming the county in honor of Dr. King, accounted for the need to work harmoniously with the Estate of Dr. King and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in ensuring only noncommercial use of King's likeness by the county, and stated: "Use of the likeness of Dr. King as the new official symbol and logo for King County is intended to promote Dr. King's legacy of nonviolent social change and to effectuate the prior legislative policy decisions of Washington state and King County to honor Dr. King's memory by renaming King County" (Ordinance 15378, p. 3). The ordinance provided that implementation would be phased in over time, in order to minimize cost.

Coordination of the design project was assigned to King County 4Culture, the arts and culture division within county government. 4Culture put the design project out to bid, and on September 12, 2006, Seattle's Gable Design Group was chosen from among 29 local and national design companies to create the design. The proposed designs were subjected to a series of four focus groups: the first, King County employees involved in activities that promote values of significant importance to employees and communities served; second, King County employees responsible for technical application of the logo; third, local community and business leaders; and fourth, members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee. The final decision from among several design alternatives was made by a special committee of top county executives, composed of County Executive Sims, Council Chair Gossett, Prosecutor Norm Maleng (1938-2007), Sheriff Sue Rahr (b. 1956), District Court Judge Corrina Harn, and Superior Court Judge Michael Trickey. The county website reported the comments made in support of the final selection as: "Image is striking, recognizable, reflects Dr. King, portrays a balanced sense of hope, is unique, holds some mystery which is good, can be supported and embraced by the community and meets the design requirements" ("Martin Luther King Logo").

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, March 11, 2007, approximately 500 people attended a ceremony at Mount Zion Baptist Church to celebrate the official unveiling of the new county logo. They were welcomed by the gospel choir DaNell Daymon and Royalty and heard speeches by political leaders, including Gregoire, Sims, and Gossett. The invocation was given by the Reverend Samuel B. McKinney (b. 1926), a classmate of Dr. King who hosted his 1961 visit. An editorial in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted Gossett: "For future generations, we will have a daily visual reminder of Dr. King -- a reminder of who he was, what he stood for and what we want the county we live in to strive to achieve" ("Living Up to a King"). The editorial repeated Gossett's view that the new logo was an embrace of diversity, under which, in the City of Seattle, three flags would fly side by side: the state flag with the face of Anglo-American George Washington (1732-1799); the Seattle flag with the face of Native American Chief Sealth (c. 1786-1866); and the new King County flag with the face of African American Dr. King.

When after all the speeches at Mount Zion church King's likeness was unveiled, 93-year-old Elsie McDaniel clapped and beamed with joy. The Arkansas native who moved to Seattle in 1945 said, "It's just like seeing a member of the family," adding that the honor was long overdue: "We've struggled for so long" (Rolph).


Sources:

HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "King County is renamed in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 19, 2005," "King County council names county after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on February 24, 1986" (by Patrick McRoberts), "Martin Luther King Jr. arrives for his sole Seattle visit on November 8, 1961" (by Mary T. Henry), "Oregon Territorial Legislature creates King County and names Seattle county seat on December 22, 1852" (by Walt Crowley), "Laing, Bruce C." (b. 1932) (by Patrick McRoberts), and "Sims, Ron (b. 1948)" (by Walt Crowley and Cassandra Tate), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 20, 2016); "Motion No. 6461," King County website accessed July 18, 2016 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/exec/mlk/other_resources/motion_6461.aspx); "Martin Luther King Logo: Background," King County website accessed July 19, 2016 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/operations/logo/background.aspx); "SB 5332 -- 2005-2006 -- Honoring the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.," Washington State Legislature website accessed July 19, 2016 (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5332&year=2006); "SB 5332 -- S Amd by Senator Mulliken," Washington State Legislature website accessed July 19, 2016 (http://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2005-06/Pdf/Amendments/Senate/5332%20AMS%20MULL%20GORR%20003.pdf); Sharon J. Jackson, Selma (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing 2014); "William Rufus King, 13th Vice President (1853)," United States Senate website accessed July 25, 2016 (http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/VP_William_R_King.htm); Rick Anderson, "A Small Step for Equality Also Discriminates Against Flakes," The Seattle Times, February 26, 1986, p. B-1; Sam Howe Verhovek, "King County Journal: In Namesake Debate, Image is Issue," The New York Times, September 5, 1999 (http://www.nytimes.com); "Governor Gregoire Signs Bill Renaming King County in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," April 19, 2005, VoteSmart website accessed July 19, 2016 ( https://votesmart.org/public-statement/90668/gov-gregoire-signs-bill-renaming-king-county-in-honor-of-dr-martin-luther-king-jr#.V47Cr1f_6rI); Judy Chia Hui Hsu, "King County's New Face," The Seattle Times, March 12, 2007 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Danny Westneat, "One Step Closer to His Dream," Ibid., March 11, 2007; Gregory Roberts, "A Look at King County's Original (ex) Namesake," Seattle Post Intelligencer, March 12, 2006 (http://www.seattlepi.com); Amy Rolph, "Seattle Sees a New Face for King County's Logo: Martin Luther King Jr.," Ibid., March 11, 2007; "King County: Living Up to a King," Ibid., March 20, 2007; Lou Chibbaro Jr., "America's First Gay Vice President?" Washington Blade, October 26, 2011, accessed July 18, 2016 (http://www.washingtonblade.com/2011/10/06/americas-first-gay-vice-president/); "Election of 1852," United States History website accessed July 21, 2016 (http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h80.html); "Compromise of 1850," History website accessed July 21, 2016 (http://www.history.com/topics/compromise-of-1850); 2005 Wash. Laws, ch. 90, copy available at Washington State Legislature website accessed August 8, 2016 (http://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2005-06/Pdf/Bills/Session%20Laws/Senate/5332.SL.pdf); Chandler Felt, "King County's Changing Demographics: A View of Our Increasing Diversity," June 5, 2013, King County website accessed July 19, 2016 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/~/media/exec/PSB/documents/AGR/KingCountyDemographics2012.ashx?la=en); King County Council Ordinance No. 15378, "An ordinance to establish the official symbol of King County to be the likeness of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," adopted February 27, 2006; "King County," County Maps of Washington website accessed July 25, 2016 (http://www.countymapsofwashington.com/king.shtml).


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