Julia Carson was the first African American woman sent to Congress by Indianapolis. She was elected in 1996.
Carson was born to a single mother who paid for their needs and helped but her through school by working as a house cleaner. Her mother instilled in Carson a deep commitment to improving the rights of working class women everywhere.
Carson began her political activism as a union organizer with United Auto Workers. Despite the disparaging of the UAW by the previous administration, they insured fair wages, paid sick leave, and retirement plans for workers in the auto-industry as well as needed health care coverage, insurance against injury, and equal hiring practices for women and workers of color. None of these protections were in place prior to their entrance into the auto industry and while women’s and poc rights were not originally on the agenda, they have been strong advocates of both for a considerable period of their existence.
Combining her community activism with her sense of civic responsibility, Carson entered politics. She worked for Republican Andy Jacobs in the 1990s and spent the next 16 years successfully running for local and legislative positions in Indiana. During that time she brought up women’s issues that no one else was working on and including protection for sex worker’s rights and welfare reform that benefited legitimate welfare recipients and punished welfare fraud rather than punishing all recipients for those who committed fraud. She also worked diligently for local GLBTQ rights.
In 1996 she went to Congress as a Democrat and was re-elected to her position up until her death from cancer in 2008. Clinton once described her as
a stealth bomber for Indiana
Carson’s key issues were: women’s rights, children’s rights, and the rights of people of color. She often spoke about how the intersecting oppressions of race and gender further impacted poverty, homelessness, health care, and children’s issues. She argued that we needed to work for the equality of both women and poc in order to address all of these key issues. She was also one of the key voices against the Iraq war, fighting to bring home our troops and ensure their continued benefits.
Carson was one of the only people brave enough to oppose the invasion of Iraq in public in 2003. Saying:
We should have learned by the Vietnam War, but we did not.
She kept pictures of every soldier who died in Iraq from Indiana to honor their service and to remind her fellow congresspeople of what continued war was costing in the lives of N. Americans. Despite what some will say about this commitment, she was extremely proud of being American as evidenced by the many images of her with the American flag, two of which are in this post.
Carson’s strength and humor helped inspired many elected black women in Congress and young and marginalized people in Indiana to participate in civic life. She believed that if you loved the people you served that you would be better be able to represent their needs over your own political aspirations, something many in Congress have forgotten.
Carson worked to expand the definition of homelessness in order to help women and children who would not normally qualify for homeless benefits and shelter programs would have access to needed resources. Carson did the same for impoverished children in order to get them included on the SCHIP Bill to expand the number of children eligible for free and low cost health coverage.
She also continued her work on domestic and sexual violence that she had begun back in Indiana. She herself had survived domestic violence and wanted to ensure that no other woman was trapped in violence because of poverty, race, or other forms of marginalization that exacerbated the gender oppression that allows DSV to continue in this country. She spoke powerfully about the rights of women to a national coalition of domestic and sexual violence advocates helping push through national level legislation and encouraged them to continuing fighting with her as an advocate on their/our side.
In 1999 she sponsored a petition to give Rosa Parks the Congressional Medal of Honor. When she was thwarted by beaurocratic red tape and ever increasing restrictions on her petition, she used her community organizing training to ask popular national black leaders, radio hosts, and activists, to raise awareness about her efforts and rally people who recognized the importance of Rosa Parks contribution to this nation to pressure Congress. As she said
See I am a sister from the hood. And we know how to get it done.
Rosa Parks got her Medal.
When Julia Carson died, black congresswomen sponsored an hour to honor her memory and how her presence helped inspire them to be better and stronger leaders. When the hour was up, people continued to stand up to ask for their 5 minutes to speak about her influence on them. Among the many people who spoke were freshman Congresspeople of color who had been moved by her mentorship, Republicans who found her insightful and honest with them, and women and men who were moved, motivated, and aided by her.
A life is often best understood by those who stand with them or for them in their last moments. The fact that so many came to celebrate her life after her passing cannot be lost on anyone. As a contemporary, she reaped the benefit of so many civic minded black women before her, but her legacy to all of us is no less important. That so many mentioned her strong advocacy for women and people of color speaks volumes about her important to our shared herstory.