Powers, Georgia Davis (1923—)

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Powers, Georgia Davis (1923—)

First African-American and first woman elected to the Kentucky State Senate. Name variations: Mrs. James L. Powers. Born Georgia Montgomery on October 29, 1923, in Springfield, Kentucky; daughter of Ben Montgomery and Frances (Walker) Montgomery; attended Louisville Municipal College, 1940–42; married Norman F. Davis, in 1943 (divorced 1968); married James L. Powers, in 1973 (divorced); married a third time; children: (first marriage) William Davis; three stepchildren.

First African-American and first woman elected to the Kentucky State Senate (served 1967–88); marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Kentucky state capital of Frankfort and elsewhere (1960s); chaired Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in Kentucky (1984, 1988).

Born in Springfield, Kentucky, on October 29, 1923, Georgia Davis Powers was the second of nine children and the only daughter of Frances Walker Montgomery and Ben Montgomery, whose father was white. One of her frustrations while growing up, she has said, was her parents' belief that a girl's place was in the home, while her eight brothers were free to do anything and go anywhere they chose; she was able to find ways to circumvent this obstacle, however. Powers grew up in Louisville, where her family had moved two years after her birth, and graduated from Central High School in 1940. Later that year, she enrolled in Louisville Municipal College, where she studied for two years. She also took some business courses at Central Business School and received a certificate from the U.S. Government IBM Supervisory School. In 1943, Powers married Norman F. Davis, with whom she would have one child before the marriage ended in divorce in 1968.

Powers first began to get involved in politics in 1962, when she was asked to help out in the campaign of Wilson Wyatt, who was running for the U.S. Senate. She was assigned the responsibility of training other volunteers, and the excitement of working in her first political campaign proved addictive. For the next five years, Powers played a prominent role in the campaigns of candidates for the Kentucky governorship, U.S. Senate, Louisville mayoralty, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Along the way, her contributions as a campaign volunteer were rewarded with her election to a four-year term on the Democratic Executive Committee of Jefferson County, in which Louisville is located. Expressing dissatisfaction with the way the committee operated, however, Powers resigned after only two years. In 1968, she attended her first Democratic National Convention, in Chicago, speaking there on behalf of a plank in Hubert Humphrey's platform.

During the 1960s, Powers also became active in the civil-rights struggle. At the state level, in 1964 she helped to put together Allied Organizations for Civil Rights, which pressured state legislators to pass public accommodations and fair employment laws. As part of that Kentucky legislative campaign, the group sponsored a march on the state capital of Frankfort that included more than 25,000 participants and a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The following year, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the legislation for which Powers and others had fought. She also marched frequently for open housing in the city of Louisville, and as a representative of the Kentucky Christian Leadership Conference (a state-level affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) joined the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Powers was also among those who marched in solidarity with striking sanitation workers in St. Petersburg, Florida, and organized in Louisville for the 1968 Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C.

Powers' civil-rights activism brought her into close contact with Dr. King. She acknowledged in her 1995 autobiography, I Shared the Dream, that the two eventually became romantically involved despite her own marriage and his marriage to Coretta Scott King . Powers wrote that she was staying with King in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968, when he was killed by an assassin's bullet. In a 1998 interview with Greg Guma, editor of the magazine Toward Freedom, Powers disputed the characterization of her relationship with King by some as a "tawdry affair." When the two were together, she said, "the rest of the world, whose problems we knew and shared, was far away. Our time together was a safe haven for both of us. There we could laugh and speak of things others might not understand. He trusted me, and I him, not to talk about it." Of King and the attempts by some to deify him in the years since his death, Powers said, "I knew Martin had all the imperfections, foibles, and passions of a mortal man. He had a good appetite for life."

In 1967, Powers ran for the Kentucky State Senate, against a white opponent, in a district that was 60% white. Proving that she had learned well while working as a volunteer in the campaigns of others for public office, she won the election, becoming the first African-American and the first woman to serve in that legislative body. As a senator, she continued to campaign for equal rights for all of Kentucky's citizens; the very first bill she introduced, which eventually became law, mandated fair housing statewide. Throughout her 21-year career in the senate, Powers worked tirelessly to win passage of civil-rights legislation, including measures prohibiting sex and age discrimination. She was a strong advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment, and championed measures calling for tighter control of insurers, improved education for the handicapped, a higher minimum wage, and salary increases for police and firefighters. She chaired the Health and Welfare Committee from 1970 through 1976 and the Labor and Industry Committee from 1978 through 1988. She also attended the Democratic National conventions in 1984 and 1988 as a delegate for the Reverend Jesse Jackson. After more than 20 years as a senator, in 1988 Powers decided against seeking another term, and was succeeded in her Senate seat by Gerald Neale, who had run against her unsuccessfully in 1979.

After leaving elected office, Powers remained active in a wide variety of organizations, including the Louisville chapter of the American Red Cross, the YMCA, the NAACP, the Urban League, and the International Afro-Musical and Cultural Foundation. She was the recipient of numerous awards conferred by groups including the American Red Cross, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Kentucky Circuit Judges Association, the Kentucky chapter of the NAACP, Mount Zion Baptist Church, and the Kentucky State University Alumni Association. Powers received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Kentucky and a honorary doctorate from the University of Louisville, both in May 1989, and in 1991 was awarded the Anderson Laureate from the state of Kentucky. She was also among the first 21 inductees of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Hall of Fame.


Powers, Georgia Davis. I Shared the Dream: The Pride, Passion, and Politics of the First Black Woman Senator from Kentucky. New Horizon, 1995.

Publishers Weekly. March 6, 1995, pp. 51–52.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

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