Historical tabloid tales

Monday Book Review

June 19, 1995|By L. D. Buckner

I SHARED THE DREAM: THE PRIDE, PASSION AND POLITICS OF THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN SENATOR FROM KENTUCKY. By Georgia Davis Powers. New Horizon Press. $25.95. WE MUST BE a nation of voyeurs. Why else the popularity of tell-all television talk shows? There are shows that don't even pretend to be more than gossipfests, and there are those that try to make us feel better about our nasty nosiness habit by giving their hosts the trappings of TV news anchors. It can be that way with books, too. Take, for example, Georgia Davis Powers' "I Shared the Dream," an autobiographical tale written in a way that would put any TV miniseries to shame.

Ms. Powers earned her place in history in 1967, becoming the first black woman state senator in Kentucky; that was no small feat, considering the tumultuousness of the time and place. So, because of the magnitude of her accomplishment, her life's story made a splash when it was published. Right?

Well, not really. The splash came from the prologue: Ms. Powers claims to have been with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the night before he was killed in Memphis, Tenn.

That's the easy hook. It's also the part of the story that makes people cringe in distaste at the taint attributed to their moral icon. They figuratively cover their eyes, only to peek through their fingers. Who can blame Ms. Powers: Sex sells. Why would such a resourceful woman waste the opportunity to sell books?

You feel a little cheap reading it, though. You think again about the meaning of the title, "I Shared the Dream." But then you look at the subtitle: "The Pride, Passion and Politics of the First Black Woman Senator From Kentucky." Somehow, you feel a little better, like maybe you can say you had a respectable, history-based reason for picking up the book.

Well, good luck getting people to believe you. But as you read on past the prologue (no doubt looking for more dirt), you discover Ms. Powers to be an engaging woman.

She spends a relative few pages on her early years in Kentucky, but enough to show that her fierce sense of worth emanated from a large, solid and religious family. Fortitude derived from being the lone girl in a sea of boys and living in an area prone to tornadoes and floods would prove to be good preparation for her later role as a foot soldier in the civil rights movement.

Ms. Powers gives a detailed, unemotional accounting of the racial oppression she and others faced during her childhood and young-adult years. Her youthful trials at times are riveting. There's first love and betrayal, first marriage (to a nice, "boring young man") and betrayal, sexual assault and forbidden love even before she first saw Dr. King on TV. Upon seeing him interviewed about black people taking a stand by way of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, the author says she felt a pride in herself and her race: "I knew eventually Black people would get justice in this country. I wanted to be there."

Her involvement in politics all but fell out of the sky. A church member solicited her help in the headquarters of the Wilson Wyatt for U.S. Senator campaign. Kentucky Democrats wanted to get out the black vote. Reluctantly, she agreed to the job, where she would be paid far less than her white co-workers and excluded from their complimentary, catered lunches.

From that losing campaign, she went to the Ned Breathitt gubernatorial effort. Ned Breathitt won, and most of the campaign staff went to the state capital. Georgia wasn't invited, though. However, that experience whetted her appetite for politics. "Politics, for me, had not been a life-long ambition. Once I got a taste of it, I knew I had found my place," she writes. " . . . I pursued my political career with all my abilities -- those I had acquired from family genes and upbringing, and those gained from my life experiences."

A skilled organizer, Ms. Powers -- working with rights activists, including A. D. King, Martin's brother, who for a time was pastor of a Louisville, Ky., church -- helped push through the state's much-opposed 1966 Civil Rights Act. Not long after the signing, a venerable incumbent Kentucky state senator moved out of his Louisville district, and Candidate Powers was born.

For many years, she was active in the civil rights movement. But, as she notes in the book, the men had the high-profile positions, the women tended to do the grunt work. She's unabashedly opinionated, flattering some famous figures, jabbing at others and sending particularly sharp barbs in the direction of the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King's closest friend. (She says that Abernathy, in his autobiography, fulfilled her greatest fear by revealing her liaison with Dr. King. Worse, she says, he gave an inaccurate account of the affair. However, he did not identify her by name.)

Incidentally, other lieutenants of Dr. King, like former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, say Georgia Powers never had an intimate relationship with Dr. King.

Her account of her senatorial campaign and 21-year landmark political career is passionate and inspiring. Still, it pales in drama compared with A. D. King's soliciting her on his brother's behalf. With lines like, "After the meeting tonight, ride with me to the Rodeway Inn and meet him there" it's hard to remain focused on what "Black leaders discussed and negotiated with the Board of Aldermen, the mayor and the county judge . . . "

But who cares? Just as you don't watch "Hard Copy" for the nightly news, you really didn't pick up the book to study Kentucky legislative history anyway.

L. D. Buckner is a features copy editor for The Evening Sun.

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