SEATTLE — King County’s name commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, there is a long history of how that came about.
"Most people, I would say, do not know that the namesake of this county is the late great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, who helped spearhead the effort to officially change the county’s name.
King County was originally named for William Rufus de Vane King, who was elected vice president with President Franklin Pierce in 1852. King was also a slave owner.
The effort to change King County’s name came about in 1986 when King County Councilmembers Ron Sims and Bruce Olson got a proclamation passed declaring Dr. King to be the county’s official namesake.
“However, years went by, and we never saw any evidence that it was actually Martin Luther King Jr. County," said Eddie Rye, Jr., a local activist.
Rye said he put Gossett on the spot in front of a couple of thousand people and charged him with getting it done. Gossett told Rye he would start the next morning.
Gossett said they went to the state legislature every year to get lawmakers to formally change the name.
“People were calling their state representatives, state senators telling them not to support it,” said Rye.
Gossett said when the effort to change the county’s namesake received publicity, he received threatening calls and letters.
“I got the same thing,” said Rye. “I had the cops actually listen to some of the vicious racist remarks that were left on my answering service."
Rye said state Sen. Adam Kline introduced legislation six times before it passed in 2005. Then-Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the legislation at the King County Courthouse on April 19, 2005.
"We were very pleased that she's willing to do that,” said Gossett.
It took another 13 months to change the county’s official logo to Dr. King’s picture, Rye said.
"He had done things that no one else had done,” Rye said. “He had brought rights to people who had been denied rights. He was humanitarian. And it really resonated then by seeing his picture on the flag."
King County is the only municipality in the country named for Dr. King, according to Rye.
“We will always be able to call upon the meaningfulness of having our county named after Dr. King,” Gossett said. “We are still having to draw upon that fact to inspire people to get involved.”