- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - When Regena Thomas took office last decade as New Jersey’s secretary of state, her thoughts turned to her mentor in Kentucky - civil rights icon and longtime state legislator Georgia Davis Powers.

“When I was sworn in and went to my office for the first time, I sat there and said to a friend, ‘I want to do this like Sen. Powers,’” Thomas said Thursday. “I wanted to have the patience, the character, the faith.”

Thomas, a former legislative aide in her native Kentucky, was in the crowd Thursday for a memorial service for Powers in the state Capitol, where she forged a groundbreaking political career.

Powers, a giant in the fight for civil rights in Kentucky and the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate, died last Saturday at age 92. She fought for fair housing and employment rights, became a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and served 21 years in the Senate.

Powers, who took office as a senator in 1968, lay in state Thursday in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor reserved for the state’s most significant leaders.

Political leaders including Gov. Matt Bevin attended the service, which featured prayer and music.

Bevin directed that flags at all state office buildings be lowered to half-staff Thursday in honor of Powers.

At the service, friends and colleagues remembered Powers’ commitment to the cause of fighting for African-Americans, women, the poor, the disabled and the disenfranchised.

“Sen. Powers’ success makes her a true iconic figure that represents the continuing fight for justice, equality and a better community and state for us all,” state Sen. Gerald Neal said. “She was a focused and furious warrior … and has left a legacy that continues to impact our lives and has given guidance to us all.”

State Rep. Darryl Owens said Powers groomed and inspired generations of civil rights activists to “pick up the mantle when their turn came.” But she stayed active in the cause into her 90s.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes recalled participating in a Lexington march with Powers to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday last year. It was bitterly cold and the march stretched more than 2 miles. Grimes said she asked Powers if she was up for the long walk.

“She looked at me, and she pulled up her pant leg and said, ‘Alison, I have my long johns on,’” Grimes said.

Former state Sen. David Karem, who sat next to Powers in the Senate for about a dozen years, recalled Powers’ sense of humor. It was never mean-spirited, but she could “put somebody in their place,” he said.

That wit was on display whenever another politician in some hot water would give a speech, he said.

“Georgia would lean over on occasion to me and say, ‘David, brace yourself: It’s the repentant speech. What they really mean is they’re sorry - sorry they got caught,’” Karem recalled.

Her longtime friend and fellow civil rights leader, Raoul Cunningham, recalled the hardships that Powers and others endured during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Cunningham said it’s up to her friends and admirers to carry on her legacy, and to teach future generations about “what she stood for and what she represents.”

During Kentucky’s civil rights movement, Powers was a founder of the Allied Organizations for Civil Rights.

She also helped organize a 1964 march in Frankfort - an event that attracted King, baseball great Jackie Robinson and folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary - to push for an end to racial segregation in public accommodations. Two years later, in 1966, the state General Assembly passed a civil rights law, making Kentucky the first Southern state to do so.

Davis’ casket was placed a few feet from a statue of Kentucky native Abraham Lincoln in the Rotunda. Also nearby was a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, another Kentucky native.

In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also paid tribute to Powers.

“Georgia Powers built a stronger, fairer Kentucky by her life’s work and her leadership,” McConnell said. “She was an inspiration to many, including me, for her determination in the face of injustice.”

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