Civil rights leader and community activist Betty Liggins, who was inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to further her education — becoming a nurse — died May 8. She was 88.

Liggins died in a nursing home after a long illness, said friend Clarence Boykins, who met her in 1985 while planning the annual MLK celebrations in Tucson.

“Betty was the first recipient of our Drum Major Award, which was based on one of Reverend King’s sermons,” said Boykins, explaining the importance of trying to live a life to serve others, being a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

“She worked in the neighborhoods, serving breakfasts at the neighborhood centers and was instrumental in helping bring Rosa Parks to Tucson in 1990, said Boykins.

Liggins met King in the 1960s when she was working as a mail distributor at a post office in Chicago, she recalled in a 2012 Arizona Daily Star interview. King talked her into going back to school, and she became a licensed practical nurse and worked as a visiting nurse in Chicago.

She moved to Tucson in 1979 where she went to work for the then-Kino Community Hospital. Liggins also worked for the county’s nursing home and studied further, specializing as a geriatric nurse practitioner.

In 1984, she was hired by the University of Arizona Family and Community Medicine and worked with seniors in the South Park Neighborhood. She eventually set up health clinics to care for the elderly in Tucson and South Tucson housing complexes through grant funding and with the support of local politicians.

One of the clinics was in a trailer near the Quincie Douglas neighborhood park, and the other was in a broom closet at Casa de Bernie Sedley apartment building in South Tucson. A third clinic was established at the then-Connie Chambers housing project south of downtown.

Dan Eckstrom, former Pima County supervisor, said: “Betty was a person who made sure she made a difference in our community. She used her profession as a nurse to provide quality health care to people who were in need.”

“She was an advocate for our seniors, and she would go visit them in their homes. There were times when she would see someone at a community meeting and she would go up to them and say, ‘I think you need medical care,’ ” recalled Eckstrom. “She then would use her contacts to get the person referred for care.”

Liggins started the clinics in 1984, and when she was at the Kino hospital she and co-workers founded the Pima County Nurses Association to push for higher wages. She retired in 1995.

Eckstrom recalled her love for the Democratic Party and her campaigning for candidates, walking the streets and knocking on doors before elections. In 2003, Liggins served as director of the 11-state Region I for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Liggins stayed active in her neighborhood of Sunland Gardens, adjacent to Western Hills, located south of East 36th Street, east of South Campbell Avenue and north of East Ajo Way.

Her spirit raised eyebrows in 1991 when she worked tirelessly to close down crack dealers selling drugs in the neighborhood. She worked with residents, politicians and the Tucson Police Department’s street gang unit and through Neighborhood Watch declared an infamous crack house as a “Drug Trafficking Area.”

In an interview, Liggins said she was tired of her neighborhood being referred to as “crack alley,” and she worried about families. She received anonymous calls threatening her life from people who identified themselves only as gang members.

She bought a .38-caliber pistol to protect herself, and she continued patrolling the neighborhoods.

“Betty was an asset and a voice in doing what needed to be done, and saying what needed to be said,” said Boykins. “She was a trouper in terms of trying to make a difference in Tucson.”

Services are pending. She is survived by a niece and a nephew.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at

cduarte@tucson.com or 573-4104. On Twitter: @cduartestar