Georgia Powers posed last month in the study of her Louisville apartment, whose walls are covered with honors amd mementoes. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, an undated photo of Powers in the state Senate. Photo by Keith Williams/The Courier-Journal.
LOUISVILLE — She had worked on two statewide political campaigns and helped organize a civil rights march that brought 10,000 people to Frankfort.
But Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers said she never thought of running for public office herself until she was working a part-time clerk’s job in 1966, processing paperwork in the state House of Representatives.
As she passed around copies of a proposed law that would ban discrimination against blacks in employment and public accommodations, she recalled recently, a newly elected representative from Western Kentucky voiced his views.
“I see no reason to change things from the way they are,” he announced. “If I voted for that, I would never get re-elected.”
Powers was furious. A few minutes later, she said she found the courage to tell him: “You know, Representative, what I need is my own seat here.”
Less than two years later, she would have one. Powers became the first black elected to the state Senate, and the first woman elected without succeeding a husband who had been a senator.
Powers is 90 years old now, still healthy, active and engaged. Her high-rise apartment has a commanding view of the downtown Louisville district she represented for 21 years as a tireless advocate for Kentucky’s underdogs: minorities, women, children 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 when I visited her recently.
Powers also helped lead civil rights marches across the South, becoming a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1989, the year after she retired from the Senate, a book by King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King had also been lovers. Her secret exposed, Powers told her version of the story in a 1995 autobiography, I Shared The Dream.
“Things happen like that,” she said when I asked her about her relationship with King. “You’re working together and you admire them and they like you and things happen. That’s life.”
Powers’ life has been both accomplished and unlikely. She was born to a poor couple in a two-room shack near Springfield. When a tornado destroyed the shack, her family moved to Louisville, where her half-white father got a factory job, enameling bathtubs.
As an only girl with eight brothers, she quickly learned to be tough. “Just because I was their sister did not mean that they tried to spoil me in any way,” she said. “Just the opposite.”
Powers left home at 18 to follow the first of many men in her life, which would include three husbands. She lived in New York and California, and her many jobs included building C-46 cargo planes during World War II as a “Rosie the riveter”.
She didn’t get involved in politics until 1962, when a church friend pestered her to work for former Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. She ended up organizing his volunteers statewide, and was hired for similar duties in Edward T. Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor the next year.
Powers realized she was the “token black” in Wyatt’s campaign, and at times she had to demand equal pay and treatment with other staffers. After Breathitt’s victory, other staff members were given jobs in Frankfort, but not Powers. The next year, Breathitt probably wished he had offered her one.
Powers was one of the main organizers of the March on Frankfort, which brought King, baseball great Jackie Robinson and folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary to the Capitol steps with 10,000 others to demand passage of a bill banning discrimination against blacks in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations.
Breathitt was a no-show, so after the march Powers brought King and Robinson to his office and asked for a meeting. The governor was non-committal, and the bill failed. But it passed in the next session two years later with his support.
By the 1968 session, Powers was in the Senate, and she wasted no time introducing civil rights legislation. She said it was an uphill battle, but she was eventually successful because her Democratic Party was then in the majority, she was able to get along with other lawmakers and she became good at legislative horse-trading.
“I never got angry with anybody if they didn’t vote for something I had up,” she said. “I figured I would need them for something else someday.”
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.”
At the end of her first, tough legislative session, King asked her to come to Memphis, where he was trying to win better pay and working conditions for striking black sanitation workers. When he was assassinated, she heard the fatal shot and was among the first to find his body.
She said King had initiated their 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.
Once it did, so many years later, the revelation angered some people in the black community, especially after she elaborated in her own book. A couple of Louisville ministers gave her a hard time, but she says it didn’t bother her.
“They thought somebody was going to tell on them!” she said with a laugh. “And the women just said, ‘I wish it had been me!’” More laughter.
Despite that bit of scandal, Powers thinks she will be remembered more for her legislative contributions, making life better for Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens. That work earned her walls full of awards, including honorary degrees from four Kentucky universities.
“Kentucky has been good to me,” she said. “I did what I was supposed to do in life.”