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Georgia Powers, Kentucky Civil Rights Pioneer, Has Died

Rush Hour in Louisville, Kentucky Skyline at Sunrise
Rush Hour in Louisville, Kentucky Skyline at Sunrise

Former Kentucky state Sen. Georgia Powers has died.

Powers was the first African-American and first woman elected to the Kentucky Senate, where she served for 21 years beginning in 1968.

She was 92.

Powers was born in Springfield in Washington County, but she grew up in Louisville. She became involved in social justice work during the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1964, Powers helped organize a 10,000-person march on the state Capitol building in Frankfort, demanding a ban on discrimination against African-Americans in restaurants and hotels. She was joined in the march by Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson and folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary.

Four years later, Powers became the first African-American elected to the Kentucky Senate, where she served for 21 years.


Louisville NAACP President Raoul Cunningham ran her first campaign.

“She was a champion of civil rights, equal rights, the disadvantaged and the economically deprived,” Cunningham said on Saturday.

In her first term, Powers sponsored and helped shepherd to passage the Open Housing Law, which outlawed segregation in housing practices. During her second legislative session, she was appointed chair of the Senate's Health and Welfare Committee. There, she was able to leverage her power and bring to passage legislation that gave employment protections to women and people over age 45. She also led efforts to enact a “displaced homemakers” bill to help older women trying to find jobs.

Cunningham said Powers had a talent for getting along with her colleagues.

“They knew she was there, they knew of her presence, and she could express herself and she did win their respect, which I think was important,” Cunningham said. “They knew what she would agree to and what she wouldn’t agree to, and she stood by her principles and she adopted and learned the legislative process.”

Powers was later appointed chair of the Labor and Industry Committee, where she fought against scaling back the prevailing wage law and so-called right-to-work legislation, which critics say would undermine labor unions.

The first bill she sponsored as a state senator was to provide equity in housing.

Powers lived most of her life in West Louisville and was a champion of its neighborhoods. A portion of Interstate 264 is named for her.

She also served as vice president of the Louisville NAACP from 2004 to 2015.

Later in her life, Powers revealed in an autobiography that she had an intimate relationship with King. The revelation drew criticism, but she defended it, saying it was part of who she was.

Powers died at 3:40 a.m. on Saturday, Cunningham said. She had been suffering from congestive heart failure, according to The Courier-Journal.

In a statement, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said Powers was an inspirational figure.

"Our city, our state and our country mourn the passing of Senator Powers, whose legacy and leadership helped build a greater Louisville and a stronger commonwealth," Fischer said. "Her compassion and dedication to ensuring a level playing for all people -- and her willingness to always stand up for what was right -- inspired me and generations of people."