• Local History: King County renamed to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    By: Patrick McRoberts, Historylink.org

    Updated:

    SEATTLE - As observations are held across the United States to remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wednesday, KIRO 7 looked into King County efforts to rename the county to commemorate the civil rights leader, rather than William Rufus de Vane King, the Vice President-elect for whom the county was named in 1852. 

    As HistoryLink.org wrote, 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," HistoryLink's Michael Schein wrote. "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."

    The following is a recap of the initial 1986 effort from a HistoryLink.org essay by Patrick McRoberts:

    On February 24, 1986, the King County Council passes Motion 6461 renaming King County to commemorate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), the civil rights leader, rather than William Rufus de Vane King (1786-1853), the vice-president-elect for whom the county was named in 1852. King County was originally named by the Oregon Territory Legislature in 1852. Washington Territory was created in 1853.

    King County's First Eponym

    William Rufus de Vane King was a plantation owner in Alabama who was elected to the U.S. Senate and served there for 34 years. In 1844 he became ambassador to France, and his diplomacy enabled the United States to annex Texas. He was a key advocate of the Compromise of 1850, a series of laws that forged a compromise between slave states and free states concerning the extension of slavery into new states and territories. The compromise kept the Union together for a few more years before the Civil War, but included the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a harsh law requiring the return of alleged fugitive slaves from the North back into bondage in the South.

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    In 1852, King was elected vice president of the United States on the Democratic ticket with Franklin Pierce. He took the oath of office in Cuba, where he had gone because of ill health, on March 24, 1853 -- 20 days after Inauguration Day. Congress granted him the privilege of taking the oath on foreign soil because of his long service to the government. He returned to his plantation, near Selma, shortly after that. He died there, of tuberculosis, on April 18, 1853, without ever actually carrying out the duties of vice president.  
    King County's Present Eponym

    The 1986 motion to rename King County after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reads:

    INTRODUCED BY: RON SIMS, BRUCE LAING
    PROPOSED NO.: 86-66 
    MOTION NO. 6461

    A MOTION setting forth the historical basis for "renaming" King County after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., instead of William Rufus DeVane King for whom King County is currently named.

    WHEREAS, the County of King in the State of Washington was named after William Rufus Devane King by the Oregon Territorial legislature in 1852, and

    WHEREAS, William Rufus DeVane King was a slaveowner and a "gentle slave monger" according to John Quincy Adams, 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 cherish and uphold the constitutional tenent of the "unmitigated pursuit" of life, liberty, and happiness for which many citizens of this county have given their lives as a supreme sacrifice to defend these foundations of freedom, 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., a man whose contributions are well-documented and celebrated by millions throughout this nation and the world, and embody the attributes for which the citizens of King County can be proud, and claim as their own.

    BE IT FURTHER MOVED,

    King County shall be named after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    PASSED this 24th day of February, 1986.

    KING COUNTY COUNCIL
    KING COUNTY, WASHINGTON 
    (signed by) Audrey Gruger
    Chair 
    ATTEST: 
    (signed by) Dorothy M. Owens
    Clerk of the Council

    A bronze memorial plaque commemorating the name change was placed on the first floor elevator lobby of the King County Courthouse at 3rd Avenue and James Street in Seattle.

    Because the state charters counties, the name change could not become official until signed into state law. For eight consecutive years, State Senator Adam Kline sponsored legislation to authorize the name change. State Representative Eric Pettigrew sponsored the bill in the State House of Representatives. On April 19, 2005, Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) signed into law Senate Bill 5332 and King County was officially renamed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

    Click here to read the essay on Historylink.org. 

    Sources:
    Mary T. Henry, Tribute: Seattle Public Places Named for Black People (Seattle: Statice Press, 1997), 39,41,42; "Motion No. 6461," King County website accessed November 5, 2010 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/exec/mlk/other_resources/motion_6461.aspx); Engrossed Senate Bill 5332, Washington State Legislature website accessed November 5, 2010 (www.leg.wa.gov/pub/billinfo/2005-06/Htm/Bills/Session%20Law%202005/5332.SL.htm); King, William Rufus de Vane, (1786 - 1853), Biographical Directory of the United States Congress website accessed November 5, 2010 (http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=k000217); "Eric Foner on the Fugitive Slave Act" PBS Africans in America website accessed March 18, 2005 (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4i3094.html).
    Note: This essay was updated on March 18, 2005, April 21, 2005, and May 20, 2010, and was corrected and updated on November 5, 2010.

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