Washington County Ditches Trash Bags Bearing Likeness of Martin Luther King Jr.

More than two years after his face was adopted as the official logo for King County, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s profile is on voter ballot envelopes, on metro buses, at the county council chambers, and prominently displayed on the county's Web site.

But officials were concerned about one place they felt wasn't appropriate for the slain civil rights leader's likeness — the county's trash bags.

The bags were quietly pulled from use earlier this summer, even though no one from the public had complained. The pre-emptive move opened a window into the delicate decisions officials have made after King County adopted the face of the revered figure as its official emblem.

"It's new territory," said Carolyn Duncan, the county's communications director.

King County — the most-populated county in Washington, with a county seat of Seattle, and the 14th largest by population in the nation — adopted the logo in 2006 and unveiled it the next year. It features a striking profile of King in a black and white silhouette. King County had been originally christened after former U.S. vice president William Rufus DeVane King, a slave owner.

The possibility of plastering King's face on mundane county items like trash bins or prisoner uniforms raised eyebrows among county officials when the proposal was approved. The old logo was a generic crown.

The decision of where the new logo goes lies with Duncan and King County Executive Ron Sims, who is black. As the head of communications, Duncan is in charge of the messages — symbolic or not — King County sends.

Her challenge: to maintain the county brand, without splashing King's face on something that's demeaning to King's history.

"Some of the things that people were concerned about were if the logo was on the floor, if the logo was on garbage cans or dumpsters," Duncan said. "It seemed unseemly to have an icon like Dr. King, to have his image on something like a waste bin at a park."

Duncan said that the old crown logo was not used on trash bins or prison uniforms, but communication directors in county departments were directed to look carefully at where the logo is used.

Some county officials and African-American leaders in Seattle have no qualms about using the image of King.

"Personally, we should use the logo wherever we traditionally printed that logo," said Larry Gossett, the county council member who led the name and logo change. Gossett said the symbol can be used "to do better."

Gossett, a longtime leader in the African-American community here, knew from the beginning there would be challenges. His own son told him that he didn't want to see King's face on a police car.

Tye Heckler of Heckler Associates — a design and advertising firm that helped developed the Starbucks brand — said once the county approved the logo, it accepted all the risks of using King's face, including the possibility that the logo may be defaced someday. But as a government, Heckler said, they have the freedom not to use the logo.

Steve Kline, a spokesman at the King Center in Atlanta, said there are no set guidelines when it comes to the use of King's image, but there have been examples of inappropriate use.

"Many years ago, some guy tried to make a knife with Mr. King on it," Kline said. "Stuff like that is always a concern. They take it of a case-by-case basis. They do try to monitor the commercial use of it."

While Kline said that King County is believed to be the first government to take King's likeness as a logo, scores of local governments have named streets, parks and even pool centers after the civil rights leader. But many of those moves have carried a stigma: many Martin Luther King Jr. streets, avenues, ways and boulevards are in low-income, crime-ridden areas.

But Gossett said that the logo has potential for good.

"You can use it to inspire and move for reforms (King) could have been be very proud of," he said.