The late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. acted on good intentions. Most, if not all, who commemorated last week the 50th anniversary of King's historic "I have a dream" speech acted on good intentions. But sometimes actions, especially political ones, are just exploits to further a personal or political agenda, and are only clothed in good intentions. Such was the case 27 years ago with the so-called renaming of King County for the slain civil rights leader. A brief history lesson should make this clear.
In the first place, King County was never actually renamed. Rather it's namesake was changed from William Rufus de Vane King to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1986 by county ordinance and became official in 2005.
William Rufus de Vane King was one of the first 2 senators from Alabama. The country was becoming increasingly divided. Secession was feared. It was felt the South needed to be mollified. King was a moderate. The Compromise of 1850 was passed, but (as is the case with many well-intended acts of government) it proved to be a disaster, in large part because of it included the notorious Fugitive Slave Act.
Following its passage, Franklin Pierce and William King won the 1852 Presidential election by a landslide. Pierce became president, and King, who had contracted tuberculosis, died a mere 45 days after taking his oath as vice-president.
In the Pacific Northwest, the people of the newly formed Oregon Territory loved both of these politicians. Samuel Thurston, the territory's first representative, promoted the territory as neither pro slavery or anti-slavery. He even advocated banning free blacks from the territory or face public flogging. Thurston County, which was a subdivision of Lewis County (named for Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame) was named for Thurston. Pierce and King Counties were subsequent subdivisions of Thurston County and named after the moderates less than 2 months after the presidential election.
The point is none of these guys were anti-slavery or pro civil rights. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin hadn't even been written yet when all this was going down. Yet, except for William King, their names all stand intact to this day. The Oregon Territory did not want blacks. That is a fact. You may not like this region's past, but there it is. But we aren't so concerned with distant history, and I guess that is to be expected. Anyway, there was no motivation for singling out William Rufus de Vane King for censure. Changing the namesake of King Country to Dr. King had nothing to do with its former namesake being a slave owner or anything else.
And this may not be the last time the county's name will be used to exploit good intentions. You see, William Rufus de Vane King was likely the first gay member of Congress. He and James Buchanan (thought by some to be the first gay US President) were life-long bachelors and lived together for many years. Political opponents (including Andrew Jackson) called them Miss Fancy and Aunt Nancy. A Tennessee governor referred to Buchanan and "his wife."
In a letter to King, Buchanan stated “I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”
The time may well come when ostensible advocates of the gay community in King County will move to have King County's original namesake restored, again for political reasons. The result could well be King and King as co-namesakes. We will have to wait and see. If it does happen, it too will be clothed in good intentions.
Good intentions abound on many causes, and near them are those who would exploit them. We must stay vigilant. Whether its civil rights, gay rights, the environment, the education of our children--any topic, I believe the people in our community who hold and act with good intentions deserve our respect. But those few who would deceive them for their own personal or political gain, deserve nothing but our contempt. There is little one person can do but try to raise awareness, that we as a community may eventually catch on to them and root them out. Please join us. Our best intentions are at stake.