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Former Rep. Cardiss Collins, 81, remembered as ‘trailblazer’

Cardiss Collins phocourtesey Northwestern Univ.

Cardiss Collins, photo courtesey of Northwestern Univ.

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Updated: March 7, 2013 10:14AM

Hailed as a trailblazer, Cardiss Collins, the first African-American woman to represent Illinois in Congress and for many years the only black congresswoman, has died at age 81.

Family friend Mel Blackwell said Mrs. Collins died of complications from pneumonia Sunday evening at a hospital in Alexandria, Va.

The Democratic Machine sent Mrs. Collins to Congress to fill the 7th Congressional District seat after her husband, Rep. George Collins, was killed in a plane crash. But she quickly made the job her own during the 22 years she held it.

“She learned the process, what the issues were and became a very solid member of Congress and provided leadership to the black caucus,” said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who lost twice to Mrs. Collins in the 1980s, but succeeded her after she retired.

“She was mild and all of that in terms of her beginning, but she was no wallflower by the time she got into her tenure.”

For years, she had been the lone black woman in all of Congress. Hence the campaign slogan she chose from “one of the times I made the mistake of running against her,” Davis recalled:

“The Only One.”

Born in St. Louis in 1931, Cardiss Robertson was raised by her mother, a domestic, who moved the family to Detroit. Unable to find work at 18, Mrs. Collins moved to Chicago to live with her grandmother, working as a stenographer with the Illinois Department of Labor then a secretary with the Department of Revenue. After about a dozen years in night school, Mrs. Collins graduated from Northwestern University Business School in the late 1960s, according to a congressional biography. While serving as alderman on Chicago’s West Side, her husband, George Collins was elected to Congress.

In 1972, George Collins was killed along with Dorothy Hunt, wife of Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt, and CBS News correspondent Michele Clark after their Midway-bound plane crashed on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Mayor Richard J. Daley chose to slate the widow as the Democratic endorsed candidate over nine others, saying, “We’re all convinced she’ll make a great congresslady.”

“I’m a woman and a mother and I’m proud of it,” Mrs. Collins said at the time. Her only son, Kevin, was a young teenager.

After Mrs. Collins won the seat in a special election, the first person she thanked was Daley, followed by the 7th Congressional District Committeemen “for giving me this opportunity.”

Accused in the 1973 special election of being a pawn to white Democratic bosses “playing plantation politics,” she said defiantly after winning, “Give me a chance. I’ll be free to speak my own mind in Washington.”

In 1974, Illinois Secretary of State Michael Howlett issued Collins the special license plate traditionally given members of Congress from Illinois. It was simply the number 7, with the word “congresswoman” instead of the usual “congressman,” which Howlett said was the first of its kind in the country.

From 1979 until 1981, Mrs. Collins served as the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and during her tenure was the first African-American woman to serve as a Democratic Majority Whip At-Large. Mrs. Collins last ran for office in 1994, when she was re-elected with 79 percent of the vote.

At the time she stepped down in 1995 at age 64, she’d been the longest serving black congresswoman to date.

During her 23 years in Congress, Mrs. Collins fought credit fraud against women and advocated for gender equality in college sports. She cosponsored the Child Safety Protection Act which requires warning labels on toys with parts little enough to be swallowed by small children.

Davis had run against her in 1984 and 1986, criticizing her for backing Jane M. Byrne, against Harold Washington in the mayoral race. Davis eventually had a post office, 433 W. Harrison, named for her.

“I learned a great deal. I did,” the congressman said of the sound defeats. “Cardiss surprised many people.”

She chaired the Government Activities and Transportation Sub-Committee, fighting for increased airplane safety.

Mrs. Collins called in 1990 for a national boycott of all Colgate-Palmolive products if the company didn’t halt production of “Darkie” toothpaste, something the Congressional Black Caucus had been calling for since 1988.

In 1993, she defended the decision of the first African American woman senator — Illinois’ Carol Moseley-Braun — to break another barrier: By wearing pants on the Senate floor, something a woman had never done before.

“They shouldn’t be concerned about the dress code unless the men senators start wearing dresses,” Mrs. Collins said.

Mrs. Collins also urged the Congressional Black Caucus to decline a White House invitation issued by President Bill Clinton because he dumped an African American professor he’d nominated as his first nominee for assistant attorney general of civil rights.

Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett noted at the time that the moment “is profoundly significant and symbolic” because of who Collins was.

“Often considered a black ‘moderate,’ she has never been noted for ‘extravagant’ oratory, and by no measurement can the Chicagoan be considered a ‘black radical,’” he wrote of Mrs. Collins

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush said Tuesday that Mrs. Collins “should always be remembered for her work, determination and strength to help and serve the poor and middle class, African-Americans and women.” A pioneer of her time, she was an effective policy maker and Representative where she set the benchmark for many Members of Congress to emulate.”

Governor Pat Quinn called her a “trailblazer” and “one of the strongest, most dedicated public servants in Illinois history.”

“She inspired generations with her never-ending fight for consumers and unmatched commitment to her constituents on the West Side of Chicago,” the governor said in a statement.

“Cardiss Collins is a legend in our state. She will be greatly missed.”

Contributing: AP

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