Activist Georgia King stands before a large-scale photo of striking sanitation workers carrying “I AM A MAN” signs in front of Clayborn Temple A.M.E. Church. Courtesy photo

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – One of the biggest fights that Memphis activist Georgia Anna King was involved in was with Memphis Housing Authority (MHA), a federally-funded housing agency.

Never one to shrink from a fight, the longtime activist, known as “Mother Georgia King,” gave it her best on the battlefield for the poor and downtrodden. She died Feb. 7 at the age of 82.

King was moved to action after learning that MHA had begun the process of relocating senior residents from several public housing developments after opting into the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) Program.

RAD allows private ownership of public housing properties to be converted into Section 8 housing. King also had to vacate her home in Jefferson Square, in Downtown Memphis. 

King’s tenacity and determination to get things done was widely known and undergirded by other activists and friends. It wasn’t unusual for King to organize and rally the community around causes she championed.

“Here was a woman whose health was horrible, but she kept a sham of it because of what she wanted to do for the people,” said Ann Yates, who’d known the activist since 2010.

“She was always wallowing in trying to help the downtrodden,” said Yates, owner of The Bazaar that King frequented. “She was like my ‘ace boon coon,’” and added, “We had a saying that ‘I’m only a phone call away.’”

Yates was indeed a phone call away when King needed her for any given reason – perhaps to talk about the vicissitudes of life, or maybe a campaign that she was involved in.

Since King was a bus rider, Yates would often transport her to events, including “all my birthday parties I gave. In fact, I have more than 70 pictures in my [cell] phone of places me and Georgia went to together.”

King always found a way to get to her destination – even if she had to ride the MATA (Memphis Area Transit Authority) bus. In 2012, she founded the Memphis Bus Riders Union, a grassroot organization fighting for better public transportation.

In 1989, King and other leaders led a contingent called the New Exodus Walkers on a 250-mile walk from Roanoke, Va., to the steps of the Capitol to urge Congress to make the homeless a priority.

King had fought for the homeless since 1960 when she was 20 years old. She also worked with the mentally ill and the chemically dependent and sought to open a mission for the homeless.

 Ondera Heggie, King’s eldest daughter, said she and her sister would accompany their mother to events when they were children. “Being a child, we accompanied her to a lot of places.”

Heggie said she watched her mother evolve from the entertainment world to civil rights activism to a spiritual person who loved the Lord. “It allowed her to cross all racial and ethnic lines,” she said.

“My mother didn’t see color or race,” added Marlena McClatchey, King’s other daughter. “She helped everybody; she loved everybody. Even if you were no good, she found the good in you anyway.”

McClatchey said she’s “just floored and honored” seeing the impact that her mother had made in the community and the many lives she had touched including the motherless and the fatherless.

When Stanley Campbell loss his mother in 2020, King stepped in to fill the void and ease the pain. “She said, ‘Cam, I think your mother wants me to be your mother figure here on earth.’”

Nicknamed “Cam Mtenzi,” Campbell is a community activist and proprietor of the House of Mtenzi, a word meaning artist in Swahili. He’s known King for more than 20 years.

“My mom is gone; now Mother King is gone,” he said, and referred to King as his “guardmother (sic).”

Campbell remembers speaking with King a month ago when she was gravely ill in the hospital. “She would call me and say, ‘Cam, what are you doing? What’s next on the agenda.’” 

King always thought about others, Campbell said. “In her last days, she was a giver on her sick bed. She wasn’t thinking about herself.”

Heggie added: “She was just little Georgia King who loved God and loved His people.”

“She will be truly missed,” McClatchey said.