Cardiss Collins, who reluctantly ran for a Chicago congressional seat left vacant when her husband died in a plane crash and went on to become Illinois’ first black congresswoman, serving for nearly 25 years as a voice for racial and gender equality and expanded health care for the poor, died on Sunday in Arlington, Va. She was 81.
Her death was confirmed by Rep. Danny Davis, who succeeded her in 1997 after she retired from Congress.
Collins’ husband, George Collins, had served two years when he was among 45 people killed in the crash of United Airlines Flight 553 near Midway Airport in Chicago on Dec. 8, 1972. Local Democrats, led by Mayor Richard Daley, quickly endorsed Cardiss Collins to succeed him. Collins, then 41 and an auditor for the Illinois Revenue Department who was worried about the couple’s 13-year-old son, Kevin, was wary of running but eventually agreed to do so.
She campaigned little but easily won the primary in April and cruised through the general election in June with 92 percent of the vote. Six years later, and after some early struggles in office — she had never considered a political career before she was thrust into one — she became chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. For much of the 1980s, she was the only black woman in Congress.
“In the last six years, my biggest roadblock has been shyness," Collins told The Washington Post in 1979. “I was basically an introvert, but once people learned I had something to say, I gained confidence."
Collins was openly critical of President Jimmy Carter, questioning his commitment to social programs and minorities. She did not invite him to speak at the caucus’ annual fundraising dinner in 1979, although he had spoken there in previous years, and she expressed support for Sen. Edward Kennedy when he signaled that he would run against Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980.
When Ronald Reagan was elected that fall, she was no easier on him when he proposed cutting social programs.
“Mr. President, if you promise me you won’t hurt the poor I’ll sit down right now," she said at a meeting in March 1981 after challenging Reagan’s description of welfare cheating.
Collins, who rose to leading roles on a range of congressional committees, was also a steady supporter of equity in college athletics, pressing the NCAA to honor the requirements of Title IX and requiring colleges to disclose more details about how they spent federal money.
She was particularly assertive on affirmative action and minority employment issues, criticizing various agencies and industries for what she called their poor records of hiring minorities. The Smithsonian Institution and the airline industry were among her targets.
She pushed through legislation in 1990 expanding Medicare coverage for mammography screening for older and disabled women and introduced resolutions designating October National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
She wrote laws increasing safety labeling on toys, setting safety standards for bicycle helmets and expanding child care services for federal workers nationwide. She also sponsored several measures to make air travel safer.