The Name King County Honors Martin Luther King Jr., But It Wasn’t Always That Way

It took a rookie county council member to reimagine the region as a salute to a civil rights hero, not a slave owner.

By Allison Williams January 25, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Seattle Met

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Martin Luther King Jr. was just 32 when he visited Seattle. Before flying back to Atlanta, King reportedly ate two helpings of everything on the menu at Mitchell’s Bar-be-cue, which stayed open late.

The First Name

The Oregon Territorial legislature picked King County’s moniker before Washington was even a state, a nod to then vice president–elect William Rufus de Vane King in 1852. The Alabama senator, slave owner, and proponent of 1850’s brutal Fugitive Slave Act died at his plantation near Selma just after being sworn in as Franklin Pierce’s VP.

When King Came to Town

Samuel B. McKinney, the pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central District invited his college friend Martin Luther King Jr. to the city in 1961; the activist came for three nights, November 8–11. On the agenda:

  • University of Washington’s Meany Hall  The Seattle Daily Times noted that the “short, compactly built minister” arrived to “roaring applause” and fans seeking autographs delayed his exit. 
  • Garfield High School  Seattle Public Schools Board refused requests to prohibit the appearance of such a controversial figure.
  • Eagles Auditorium The now–ACT Theatre hosted King after the First Presbyterian Church rescinded its offer at the last minute, blaming construction and commitments and drawing criticism that the move was related to King’s radical activism. A First Presbyterian official apologized to the Mount Zion pastor in 1998. “We accept him into our midst as a loyal fellow American.”
  • A Bite of Barbecue in the Central District Over a meal, MLK told McKinney he was impressed by Seattle’s progressive African American community.

The King Way

In 1981 activist Eddie Rye Jr. collected 4,000 signatures in his bid to rename Seattle’s Empire Way after the civil rights legend. Merchants on the busy boulevard sued over the cost of new signage, but they were defeated in court soon after volunteers plastered street signs with stickers bearing the new name: Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

The Last Word

Before he became King County executive or an Obama Administration deputy secretary, Ron Sims was a newly minted King County council member with a goal: In 1986 he proposed keeping “King” but changing the county’s official namesake, honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Motion 6461 passed on February 24, though it took until 2005 for it to become state law. 


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