Posted February 5, 2016
Compiled by Patrice K. Muhammad
Georgia Davis Powers lived to be 92 years old. In those 92 years she made history as a civil rights leader and politician in the State of Kentucky.
At 40 years old, Powers was elected by voters in Louisville’s 33rd District to the Kentucky Senate. When she arrived in 1967 the Senate was comprised exclusively of Caucasian men. Powers was the first woman and first Black member of the Senate.
“She became a master politician. She sponsored the open housing law, which passed in 1968, making Kentucky the first state in the south to have a state-level fair housing law. She served alongside fellow legislators and officials with dignity, she garnered respect, and she carried with her a singular grace. She was feisty, witty, elegant, and she meant business,’’ said John Johnson, Executive Director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.’’
Powers was a member of the Kentucky Senate from January 1968 to January 1989. She sponsored bills prohibiting employment discrimination, sex and age discrimination. It was her lobbying efforts that got statewide fair housing legislation passed, the first State to do so in the South. Powers was a member of the Cities Committee, Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee and the Rules Committee. She served as secretary of the Democratic caucus from 1968 to 1988 and chaired two legislative committees: Health and Welfare (1970–76) and Labor and Industry (1978–88).
Before her own career in politics, Georgia became active in the Democratic Party by joining the U.S. Senatorial campaign staff of Wilson Wyatt and working the political campaign of Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt who ran successfully for Governor of Kentucky in 1963.
In 1964, Powers was one of the organizers of the historic March on Frankfort in support of equity in public accommodations, an event in which drew 10,000 protestors. Dr. Martin Luther King, Peter, Paul and Mary and baseball legend Jackie Robinson participated.
It was during that event that Powers met Dr. King. King’s brother A.D. King was also a civil rights activist and pastor of a Zion Baptist Church in Louisville. In 1995 Powers detailed her, often hinted at, intimate relationship with Dr. King in her book, I Shared the Dream: The Pride, Passion, and Politics of the First Black Woman Senator from Kentucky.
Powers believed in the work of Dr. King and did her part to bring justice to the Commonwealth and ran for Senate where her often lone stance helped change laws and policies.
Powers was at the Loraine Motel and says in her book that she met with King moments before he was fatally shot on the hotel balcony.
In a 2000 oral history interview, Gov. Brethitt is heard speaking very highly of Senator Powers. “Georgia Davis Powers, was a great leader and a strong supporter of Dr. King and represented his views in Kentucky very effectively. I would consider her one of the real heroes of the Civil Rights Movement in this state; and one of the most effective civil rights leaders in this state… She was effective in the Senate and in politics through the art of persuasion. She did not antagonize people. She was very strong in her positions, but she has a wonderful personality and people liked her. And she would get votes very effectively for the causes she believed in. She just was a vote getter and a great lobbyist and persistent.’’
In 2010 the Kentucky Legislature voted to rename the portion of I-264 that runs through West Louisville (from the Indiana border to the junction with US 31W) the Georgia Davis Powers Expressway. The University of Kentucky endowed a chair in the name of Senator Powers as part of UK’s Center for Research on Violence Against Women.
News of Senator Powers passing on January 30th has prompted many public statements from colleagues.
“Senator Powers was one of our greatest civil rights leaders and one of the grand women of this and the last century from our state. We have lost a cherished, beloved Kentucky daughter and a champion.
In another part of his tribute John Johnson said, “Senator Powers was a brave and fearless African American and female leader for civil rights at a time when basic rights were withheld from African Americans and when women of all races were fighting their way toward equality in our state and country…until her last days, she was a well-known and respected force for equality and people in need.’’
Kentucky reporter Renee Shaw, who interviewed Powers on several occasions posted this ode on Facebook. “It is no exaggeration, in my view, that Georgia Davis Powers is one of the most influential political leaders in Kentucky history. She was a tireless agitator to systems and policies that belittled minorities, women and the downtrodden. A spitfire. A firebrand. A provocateur. She owned those qualities. She defined them. But, one thing is for sure, no one defined her life without her permission. She took control of her own narrative and blazed a trail for generations to come.’’
President Raymond Burse of Kentucky’s first Historically Black University said, “During her tenure in the State Legislature, she was an avid and vocal supporter of Kentucky State University. In 1981, when there was a question regarding the continued existence of [the University], Senator Powers went to her colleagues and gathered a petition on which more than 100 members of the Kentucky General Assembly signed on supporting the continued existence and viability of Kentucky State. She undertook this initiative on her own.’’
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin directed that flags at all state office buildings be lowered to half-staff from sunrise Thursday, February 4th through sundown Friday, February 5th in honor of Senator Powers.
She was remembered at the Capitol on Thursday, February 4th, where Senator Powers lied in state during which a memorial service was held.
Visitation was held later that night at St. Stephen Church in Louisville, KY where the funeral was also held Friday. A motorcade along on the Georgia Davis Powers Freeway was followed by service of committal in Cave Hill Cemetery.
Expressions of sympathy may be sent as contributions to the Emma L. Minnis Junior Academy, 1939 Magazine Street, Louisville, KY 40203, or the Louisville Branch NAACP, PO Box 161173, Louisville, KY 40256.