With Martin Luther King Day just around the corner (January 17), King County Council member Larry Gossett is revving up his effort to get King’s image in the county’s official logo. Gossett originally hoped to have his plan adopted by the council and in place by this year’s King Day celebration, but delays in appointing committee chairs, he says, have set him back. Nevertheless, he hopes to have his ordinance resubmitted and voted on by the end of the month.
The county’s current symbol is an inoffensive, stylized crown, which relates to exactly nothing. King County was in fact named for William Rufus DeVane King, Franklin Pierce’s vice president.
William King, it turns out, was a marginal political figure with some baggage. Six months after his election he died and thus was unable to aid Pierce in being one of our country’s worst presidents—let alone make any kind of a mark on the Pacific Northwest. He was also a slaveholder, though so was George Washington. An interesting footnote: He was also almost certainly gay. In the 1850s, his political enemies called him “Aunt Nancy” or “Aunt Fancy,” and he had an intimate, live-in relationship with future president James Buchanan (both were bachelors). Whether it was sexual in the way we might define it today remains unclear. King’s letters reveal a passionate friendship, but there was no Linda Tripp to provide us with the lurid, tabloid details.
But enough about that King.
In 1986, under the leadership of now-County Executive Ron Sims, the council narrowly voted to rename King County after the civil rights leader, which seemed much more fitting for the premier county in a politically progressive state that hosts one of America’s most progressive cities (at least we thought so before WTO). But the idea also provoked discomfort, just as many opposed the renaming of Empire Way to Martin Luther King Way. The main expressed argument then, as now, was cost.
But one suspects that in King County, which is less than 6 percent black, a passive racism is at work and, for some, a discomfort with King’s personal and political life. White Seattleites like to think that race doesn’t matter—we’ve elected a black mayor—but anything overtly racial makes us uncomfortable, and King’s struggle was first and foremost about race, and cannot be honored in a color-blind fashion. He also advocated a kind of left-wing politics and resistance to legalized injustice; during the WTO, we saw how Seattle responds to that.
Gossett says the county estimates the name change would run $2 to $3 million. That includes replacing the logo on some 48 county park signs (perhaps at $20,000 a pop), plus new uniform patches, flags, and the like. New stationary, it seems, could be simply phased in as stocks of the old paper are used up. Gossett has proposed in his ordinance a gradual four-year phase-in and is open to extending that if it will make a difference. Will that seem like a reasonable expense in this post-I-695 environment? Gossett hopes so. He says no one on the council has said they would oppose his ordinance, though some, like council member Chris Vance and Sims, expressed cost concerns last fall, pre-I-695.
One unanswered cost question is what the King estate may charge for use of King’s likeness. In recent years, the King family has become more aggressive in asserting intellectual property rights to King’s words and image (no worry there from George Washington or Chief Seattle’s heirs). Gossett has talked with them and believes the fee will be minimal, since the county is a not-for-profit entity.
Gossett hopes that this year the day honoring King can be used to make a statement that King County should complete the process of honoring the civil rights activist. The idea that county prison guards and sheriff’s deputies would be wearing King’s image on their uniforms has great current appeal, given WTO woes. And certainly the Seattle metro area could do better than the citizens of Augusta, Minnesota, whose city fathers said last week they are seriously considering changing the name of their city to honor another American political figure: Jesse Ventura.