LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Georgia Davis Powers, a giant in the fight for civil rights in Kentucky and the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate, has died. She was 92.
She died around 3:40 a.m. Saturday at her brother’s home in Louisville, said Louisville’s NAACP President Raoul Cunningham, a friend for five decades.
“When you think of civil rights in Kentucky, you have to start with Georgia Davis Powers,” said Kentucky State Sen. Gerald Neal, a longtime friend and colleague who says Powers inspired him into public service.
She fought for fair housing and employment rights, became a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and served 21 years in the state Senate. She was soft-spoken, gracious, quick with a joke, Neal said. But in her battle for civil rights, she did not blink.
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“She walked into the Legislature, a man’s world, a white man’s world, and she did not waver,” Neal said. “She asked no quarter and gave no quarter.”
Powers was born in 1923 in Washington County, Kentucky, the only girl among her parent’s nine children. The family moved to Louisville when she was a young child. As a teenager, Powers quit a job at a five-and-dime store rather than tell black customers they weren’t allowed to eat their food at the counter.
“I didn’t like it. I knew it was going on and I always wondered what could be done about it,” Powers said in an interview. “And in my young mind I couldn’t think of anything to do about it.”
That didn’t last for long.
During Kentucky’s civil rights movement, Powers was a founder of the Allied Organizations for Civil Rights. She also helped organize a 1964 march in Frankfort — an event that attracted King, baseball legend Jackie Robinson and folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary — to push for an end to racial segregation in public accommodations. Two years later in 1966, the General Assembly passed a civil rights law, making Kentucky the first southern state to do so.
“She was a fighter, and she knew how to fight,” said Cunningham. “She was a champion of equal rights for women, for lesbians and gays, for the economically deprived. Her voice will be missed.”
By 1967, Powers became the first African-American woman elected to the Kentucky Senate. She took office in 1968, and for next 21 years fought for African-Americans, women, the poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised.
“She was fighting for equality for all people while I was still fighting for my first Golden Gloves title,” boxing legend Muhammad Ali, a Louisville native, said in an emailed statement. “Senator Powers leaves behind a rich legacy of civic engagement and social justice.”
Democratic leaders across the state mourned her passing Saturday.
“She was a powerful voice for those she served; she was a leader who never stopped rallying others to join her in making Kentucky a better place; and she proved to be an enduring inspiration for others called to public service,” Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo wrote. “Those of us lucky enough to know her will never forget her smile, her wit and the fire she had that warmed us all.”
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes described her as a brave champion for civil rights who left behind a better state, and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer wrote that her dedication “to ensuring a level playing field for all people” inspired him and generations of others to fight for equality.
One of the first bills she introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly was dealing with the removal of race from the state’s operator’s licenses. Later, Powers said that effort was prompted by her own experience when as a 16-year-old trying to get her license she was asked her race.
“That’s how this discrimination affects young people, see,” Powers once said in an interview. “It stayed in my mind all those years.”
She was close to the icons of the civil rights movement. She gained national attention after she said in her autobiography she had a yearlong affair with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was with him at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before he was killed.
In “I Shared the Dream,” Powers said the affair started about three years after she first met King and ended when he was assassinated in 1968. Others close to King questioned her story and her motivations for telling it.
Powers’ brother, Lawrence Montgomery, said the notoriety never changed her.
“She was always for the advancement of the poor people,” said Montgomery. “And she tried to be a voice for the poor people.”
She said his sister had struggled with congestive heart failure.
“I hope folks reflect upon where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go,” Neal said. “She always believed we can only become a better society.”
Associated Press writers Bruce Schreiner, Claire Galofaro and Travis Loller contributed to this report.
This story corrects that Powers was first African-American woman, instead of first woman and first African-American, elected to state Senate.