Tom Eblen

Interviews reveal new details of Martin Luther King’s affair with Kentucky senator.

Photo of Sen. Georgia Davis Powers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Frankfort, Ky., in 1964.
Photo of Sen. Georgia Davis Powers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Frankfort, Ky., in 1964. Herald-Leader File Photo

In newly released recordings, a longtime Kentucky state senator reveals new details about her affair with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what happened in the hours before his assassination.

Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor who helped edit King’s papers, interviewed Georgia Davis Powers for seven hours over three days in August 2010 under the condition that the material be sealed until after her death.

Powers died Jan. 30, 2016 at age 92. The University of Kentucky Libraries’ Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History recently posted the recorded interviews online. Listen at: kentuckyoralhistory.org.

Powers was the first black person elected to the Kentucky Senate, and the first elected woman who wasn’t succeeding a husband. During 21 years in the General Assembly, she pushed through more than 40 bills, mostly to strengthen rights for minorities, women, children, disabled people and labor.

Months after she retired in 1989, a book by Ralph David Abernathy, King’s top lieutenant, made public that Powers and King had been lovers. Powers told her version of the story in a 1995 autobiography, “I Shared the Dream: The Pride, Passion and Politics of the First Black Woman Senator From Kentucky.”

In a small, second book, “Dr. King’s Last Day,” published in 2015, Powers elaborated on what she, King and the rest of his inner circle did in the hours before he was gunned down 50 years ago this week in Memphis. He had gone there to help striking sanitation workers.

There are no startling revelations in the interviews, but Smith said they provide a more candid and detailed account of Powers’ relationship with King, her feelings about their affair and his impact on her life and career.

“One takeaway for me with those interviews, and she doesn't write about it in either one of the books, is just the level of guilt that she experienced,” Smith said.

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Sen. Georgia Davis Powers posed for a portrait in her Louisville apartment on Jan. 17, 2014. Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

Powers first met King in March 1964 when he came to Frankfort to lead a huge march that paved the way for the South’s first civil rights laws. Powers was an organizer of that march. They met again in January 1967, when King came to Louisville to visit his brother, A.D. King, who was pastor of Zion Baptist Church.

In the interviews, Powers said King seemed attracted to her at their first meeting. Their second, which King’s brother arranged at King’s request, led to occasional rendezvous when they met for events around the country. Both were married, although by then Powers was in the process of a divorce.

Powers said King called upon her to go and confront his troubled brother when he threatened suicide. “A.D. was a nice guy, good guy,” Powers said. “He just had some problems.”

In the spring of 1968, at the end of her first legislative session, Powers said King asked her to come to Memphis. The day he was murdered, they and a few others spent the afternoon in her room because King thought the FBI had bugged his room. The group relaxed, joked, ate snacks and strategized.

She listened as King and his brother called and talked to their mother. And she remembered Andrew Young coming in to tell King the result of a court hearing on an injunction against a march they planned. Young first said a judge had forbidden the march, and when King realized he was teasing, he threw a pillow at Young, which Young threw back.

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Sen. Georgia Davis Powers at her Senate seat in 1988. Keith Williams Courier-Journal

But most of the afternoon, King was unusually solemn, Powers said.

“I think he was conscious that something was going to happen, I really do,” she said. “A lot of us were doing the talking. He was listening and had his eyes closed sometimes and it would just be like he was meditating.”

Late that afternoon, King and the others left Powers’ room to get ready for dinner. As she was at the mirror putting on her makeup, she heard the fatal shot, which struck King as he stood on the balcony outside his room.

Powers said King’s passion for eradicating poverty and racism shaped her Senate career. She realized she had a duty to use her position of power to improve the lives of powerless people.

When pressed about her relationship with King, Powers told Smith that “he wasn't the kind of man that would be attractive to me. He was small in stature.” Asked if she considered their relationship a “love affair,” she chuckled.

“I never looked at it like that, really, I never did,” she said. “I looked at it as two people who cared about each other. And sometimes we met. And that was it. There was nothing in between that … he didn't love me and I didn't love him.”

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Gerald L. Smith, professor of history, University of Kentucky. Photo Provided

But she told Smith she was filled with guilt about their relationship.

“I asked God for forgiveness,” she said. “But I couldn't forgive myself. It took me years to forgive myself.”

King was a great historic figure, Smith said, but his relationship with Powers showed “he was not flawless.”

Or as Powers told Smith: “He was a good man, but he was a man.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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