Georgia Davis Powers, the first woman and first black person elected to the state Senate who during a 21-year career won passage of major legislation to help Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens, died early Saturday in Louisville. She was 92.
Powers was elected in 1967 after working in two statewide political campaigns and helping organize civil rights marches across the South. In 1989, a year after her retirement, a book revealed she also had been Martin Luther King Jr.’s lover.
Powers, who had suffered from congestive heart failure for several years, died at 3:40 a.m. at a brother’s home in Louisville, said Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP and a longtime friend.
“Clearly, she was not afraid to ask difficult questions and seek solutions to problems involving race, class or gender,” said Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor who interviewed Powers extensively in 2010 and arranged for her to donate most of her papers to UK Special Collections. “She holds an influential and undeniable place in Kentucky history.”
Political figures and those who knew her praised Powers for her work as a civil rights trailblazer, leader and legislator.
“She will long be remembered for breaking down barriers to advance the cause of civil rights here in the Commonwealth and across our nation,” Gov. Matt Bevin said. “In her role as a legislator, she boldly fought discrimination and dedicated her life to making her community and state better for all citizens.”
“Former Sen. Powers personified the very things that every legislator strives for,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said. “Those of us lucky enough to know her will never forget her smile, her wit and the fire she had that warmed us all.”
“I found her to be one of the brightest individuals I’ve ever worked with,” said Sen. Julian Carroll, a Frankfort Democrat who served as governor in the 1970s. He called Powers “one of the great leaders of our time, not only for the African-American community but for all working people, the downtrodden, the needy.”
Powers was “an iconic, all-encompassing symbol of strength and determination to overcome wrongs,” said Sen. Gerald Neal, a Louisville Democrat who succeeded Powers.
“She was a special Kentucky citizen and a special American,” said Joe Graves of Lexington, who served in the Senate as a Republican with her in the 1970s. “I really admired her.”
Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers was born Oct. 19, 1923, in what she described as a two-room shack in the “Jim Crow Town” section of Springfield in Washington County. She was the only girl among nine children born to Frances Walker and Ben Gore Montgomery.
When Powers was young, her family moved to Louisville, where her half-white father got a job enameling bathtubs at an American Standard factory. (Late in his life, he worked as a doorkeeper in the Senate chamber.)
Powers said she first realized blacks were treated as second-class citizens at age 8 when she and one of her best friends, a white girl, had to go to different schools. Powers graduated from Central High School in 1940 and studied two years at the Municipal College for Negroes, then a segregated unit of the University of Louisville.
Powers was married three times and lived in New York and California before returning to Kentucky. Among her many jobs was building C-46 cargo planes during World War II.
After moving back to Louisville, a church friend suggested Powers get involved in politics. She took a leave of absence from her job as a Census Bureau supervisor in 1962 and joined the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt. The next year, she directed volunteers for Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor.
Powers had strong interpersonal skills and was good at managing the volunteers, most of whom were white, said Don Mills of Lexington, who was Breathitt’s press secretary.
The next year, Powers was among the organizers of the March on Frankfort, which brought 10,000 people — including King, baseball legend Jackie Robinson and folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary — to the Capitol steps to demand legislation banning discrimination in public accommodations.
After the march, Powers joined King and other civil rights leaders in meeting with Breathitt. (The governor favored civil rights, but for political reasons did not attend the march, although his 16-year-old daughter and half his cabinet members did, Mills said.)
The civil rights bill failed in the General Assembly that year. But in 1966 — legislators then met only every other year — Kentucky became the first Southern state to ban discrimination in employment and public accommodations.
I had no idea I would ever be a politician. But I did what I was supposed to do in life. Kentucky has been good to me.
Georgia Davis Powers, interviewed in January 2014
Powers said in an interview two years ago that she decided to run for public office in 1964 while working as a part-time clerk for the state House of Representatives.
As she passed around copies of the civil rights bill, a newly elected representative from Western Kentucky proclaimed: “I see no reason to change things from the way they are. If I voted for that, I would never get re-elected.”
Powers said she was furious, but soon found the courage to tell him: “You know, Representative, what I need is my own seat here.”
Three years later, she had it. Powers sought the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat in her majority-black Louisville district, and won the election. She became the first black person elected to the Senate and the first woman elected without succeeding a husband who had been a senator.
“She cared about people’s needs,” Mills said. “ She knew her community, and she supported legislation she thought would benefit her community.”
Over the next two decades, Powers pushed through more than 40 bills, mostly to help minorities, women, children, organized labor and poor, elderly and disabled people.
“When you are placed in a powerful position, whatever it is, you should do everything you can do for people who have no voice and need an advocate,” she said. “I saw a need for someone to speak out for women, for African-Americans, for children.”
Powers was a successful state senator because she was a good bargainer and treated everyone with courtesy and respect, said Graves, who was then a Republican.
“I never got angry with anybody if they didn’t vote for something I had up,” Powers said. “I figured I would need them for something else someday. I got along with people. It’s just my personality.”
Powers also knew how to stand her ground. “I never had any fear,” she said. “I figured all they could do was shoot me. I had been marching down in Alabama and everywhere else and never got shot.”
Powers said King initiated their intimate relationship with the help of his brother, A.D. King, who was then a minister in Louisville. Although both were married to others, she said they met several times and she always feared their secret would get out.
In spring 1968, at the end of her first legislative session and as she was going through a divorce, King called and asked her to come to Memphis. He was there trying to win better pay and working conditions for striking sanitation workers, virtually all of whom were black.
They were at the Lorraine Motel, preparing to go out to dinner, when King was assassinated. Powers said she was in her room, fixing her hair, when she heard the fatal shot. She was among the first to find King’s body on the balcony.
In 1989, the year after she retired from the Senate, a book by Ralph David Abernathy, King’s top lieutenant, disclosed that Powers and King had been lovers. Her secret exposed, Powers decided to tell her own version of the story six years later in an autobiographical book, I Shared the Dream: The Pride, Passion and Politics of the First Black Woman Senator From Kentucky.
“Things happen like that,” she said two years ago when asked about her relationship with King, a married Baptist minister. “You’re working together and you admire them and they like you and things happen. That’s life.”
Two years after retiring from the Senate, Powers created the organization Friends of Nursing Home Residents to organize faith-based volunteers in Louisville. In 1994, she started QUEST (Quality Education for All Students) to monitor equity in Jefferson County Public Schools.
Powers lived to see great change, and she was elated when she attended a party in Louisville in January 2009 to watch television coverage of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the nation’s first black president. “I never dreamed I would ever see this,” she said that day. “The blacks who helped build the White House were slaves. And just to think that there’s an African-American who’s the leader in the White House is just amazing. It’s just almost unbelievable.”
Powers’ lifetime of activism earned her dozens of awards, including honorary degrees from four Kentucky universities, that covered the walls of her downtown Louisville apartment.
“I had no idea I would ever be a politician,” she said. “But I did what I was supposed to do in life. Kentucky has been good to me.”
Funeral arrangements were pending.
Staff writer Jack Brammer contributed to this report.