They can laugh about it now. The silent colleagues. The angry phone calls from near and far. The cabinet drawer full of threatening letters that drew the interest of the FBI.
But back in 1986, then-King County Councilmembers Ron Sims and Bruce Laing were at the center of a storm that they themselves stirred up when they sought to change the namesake of King County from a long-dead vice president and slaveowner to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil-rights leader.
“We were before our time,” Sims recently recalled. “We surprised everybody.”
President Ronald Reagan had signed the federal holiday into law three years earlier — it took effect in 1986. Still, the motion to change King County’s was narrowly approved by the County Council: Four Democrats and Laing, a Republican, voted in favor of the motion. The remaining four, all Republicans, opposed.
Thirty-four years later, Laing and Sims like to believe that society has evolved enough that the notion of honoring King would have been a no-brainer, with support from all corners and a unanimous vote.
“It would have been not at all as difficult to pass today,” said Laing, now 87 and living in Bellevue. “You can see, through time, that it was too current and too radical at the time. We squeaked through.”
Said Sims: “People would be saying, ‘It’s about time.’ I think people now are kind of mystified.”
The idea came to Laing in 1986, when he read a piece by then-Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson, who marked King’s birthday every year by suggesting King County make him its namesake. Laing walked into Sims’ office with a copy of the newspaper and closed the door. King’s birthday was about to become a national holiday, he said. Why don’t we make the change?
Sims recalled being a freshman council member and “whippersnapper” eager to make things right. He got his staff working on the idea right away.
Sims recalls his first draft was “really angry,” with strong language about how equality hadn’t been achieved, and how African Americans hadn’t been invited into much of society — something King long advocated. Laing — who had studied to become a priest — softened the divisiveness that infused Sims’ words.
“Bruce rewrote it and saw how my standing wasn’t in my anger,” Sims said. “My standing is in people feeling inclusive. And Bruce is a priest still.”
Despite Laing’s edits, the blowback came quickly.
“The people who were against it said my base wouldn’t support it,” said Sims, 71. “It was not a period in our history, in King County or even Seattle, where people would jump up and say ‘great idea.’ People were looking at who their constituents were.”
Back in 1986, Sims said, segregation still existed in the county, a holdover from the days when people like Bill Boeing had written into the bylaws of the Innis Arden neighborhood that homes couldn’t be sold to anyone who wasn’t white. Those who weren’t white, the restrictions said, could occupy the homes only as domestic servants.
Said Sims: “It was the culture of Seattle for a long time.”
The namesake change was supported by religious leaders, specifically the Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney of Mount Zion Baptist Church and Rabbi Raphael Levine from Temple De Hirsch Sinai.
Sims’ staff received so many threatening letters that the FBI came in and collected them from a file drawer, along with the names of people who had called making threats.
Sims pushed on, remembering when he and his wife were looking for a home in the late 1970s. The real-estate agent never showed them any area but Rainier Beach: “She never showed us a house in another neighborhood,” he said. “It was like, ‘This is where black people live.’
“People would say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And the answer was to make a statement. Period. We wanted a strong expression, to basically say ‘We are Martin Luther King County.’ “
King County was named for William Rufus de Vane King in 1852, the same year he was elected vice president under President Franklin Pierce. William King had been a lifelong politician, serving as a U.S. representative from his native North Carolina, and a senator from Alabama before becoming vice president under Pierce, the 14th president of the U.S.
William King owned a cotton plantation near present-day Selma, Alabama. He and his relatives were one of the largest slaveholding families in the state, collectively owning as many as 500 slaves.
“You can see why the change was the right thing to do,” Sims said.
Christopher Sebastian Parker, a political science professor at the University of Washington, agrees on that point. But not on whether it would be easier to pass the measure now, despite huge strides in racial, gender and sexual rights and culture such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington state in 2012 — three years before the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal nationwide.
In 2016, Parker directed a survey on behalf of KCTS and Crosscut that he says shows the Puget Sound region — long considered the most liberal part of the state — is in many ways no different than conservative Eastern Washington.
“I don’t think it would be as smooth sailing today,” Parker said of the namesake vote. “I don’t think it’s a no-brainer. You go from a name people have been accustomed to, to one of a non-white man? I don’t care if it is today, lo these 30 years later. It’s not going to be a hostile response, but there would be less hostility.”
For example, one survey question asked whether or not blacks would be just “as well off as whites” if they “would only try harder.” Only 3 percentage points separate Puget Sound from Eastern Washington on this question, “and not in the order in which one might anticipate,” Parker said: 45% of Western Washingtonians agree with this statement, versus 42% of those who reside east of the Cascades.
“People think Seattle is globally progressive,” Parker said, noting that 82% of the county is white. “And it is not.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s son had his doubts, as well. When the namesake change motion made national news, Martin Luther King III called the County Council offices to find out what was going on. “He was thinking, ‘Who could these people be?’ ” Sims said. “We were nowhereland. He was so worried that it would fail.”
But Sims also heard from a librarian who lived in Selma, Alabama — near William King’s former plantation — who called Sims to urge him on.
“She wanted this to happen in the worst way,” Sims remembered.
The woman called every week to check on the progress of the motion, “and when it passed, she broke down,” Sims said. “I still, to this day, don’t know who she was. I just let her cry. I think it was because she felt that there was a place to acknowledge the worthiness of Dr. King’s efforts.”
It took several years for the state — which charters counties — to make the namesake change official. For eight years, state Sen. Adam Kline, a Democrat from Southeast Seattle, sponsored the namesake legislation before it was authorized in 2005. State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, sponsored the namesake bill in the House of Representatives.
The renaming became official in April 2005, when then-Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a Senate bill into law — and did so, symbolically, at the King County Courthouse.
But it wasn’t until February 2006 that the County Council voted to change the official logo from a crown to an image of King. A crowd of 200 citizens jumped to their feet, cheered, beat Native American drums and sang, “We Shall Overcome.”
“Symbols are very important,” said then-County Councilmember Larry Gossett, who sponsored the logo ordinance.
As for what the name change means to his legacy, Laing was laid back: “I feel good about it,” he said. “I can’t say that Martin Luther King impacted my life, other than his examples were so compelling. His enthusiasm and his articulation.”
He is just as proud, he said, that two years after the King motion passed, he recommended the establishment of a county office to study global warming. The move received scorn from the editorial board of The Seattle Times, which called the idea “hyperbolic clouds of rhetorical gas.” The paper later changed its stance and supported him.
“I love it!” Laing said with a laugh. “That was going through my head recently.”
Sims, who would go on to become King County executive and deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, called the experience “a birthing.”
“Up until then, people didn’t take me seriously. And it reset how I approach problems. I said I would never be the angry person I was prior to that motion. We need to be human who welcome and embrace. That makes everything easier.”