These excerpts are from an interview with Cardiss Collins conducted by Renee Poussaint as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project. More information can be found at http://www.visionaryproject.org/collinscardiss/
Advice to Young African Americans
Collins: I would hope and I would advise young Africa-Americans to learn our history. So often I've talked to my son and to my granddaughter about how life was in my lifetime and they think it's funny. They think the trials and tribulations that our people have gone through were stories that were in old history books when there was a history written about us, that—I know they have no frame of reference. But I think those of us who are alive today, who did go through some of that, have a responsibility to tell our story to our families to let them know that they lived those things that they think funny, so that they know from whence they came, and they know the responsibility that lies on their shoulders to move our [unintelligible] forward and upward. It's their responsibility now.
I believe that although we have more young men in colleges and universities now than we've had, I think that special effort should be made to have more of them go to our colleges and universities. I think there's a critical charge that we as grandparents and parents have today, that we've overlooked. to some degree, that we haven't been serious about. When I was growing up, I was told that I had to—as many of us were told, most of us were told—I had to work harder and do better than everybody else in my class because I was a little black girl, and that I just had to be better and work harder. And I think we have to instill that in our young men. They have to be better, they have to work harder—but they must graduate from college.
COLLINS: Right now, I decided I would describe myself as a happily retired woman, whose interest is reading, listening to music—I still like my jazz—still like to listen to music. I still like to play bridge—I'm getting more into the conventions of bridge. I spend much more time with my church and I sing in a choir, which I enjoy a great deal. I like having my son come over for dinner on Sundays when he can. And I like being around people my age and doing a little volunteer work. That's my life.
POUSSAINT: What is your definition of leadership?
COLLINS: I guess I would define leadership as...seeing a void some place, or seeing something that needs to be done, and just going and do it.
My Decision to Retire
COLLINS: I had made up my mind. George had said he was going to retire at 55 and I had said I was going to retire at 65. I think that—and I know I was going to retire at 65—but I think the hardest thing that happened to me in my service, in my tenure, was when the House went from Democrat to Republican domination. There was an adjustment that had—I mean it was just a jerking adjustment that had to be made. I would have been the chair of the Government Operations Committee. Conyers would have been the chair of Judiciary. He was leaving government operation to go to the Judiciary Committee. I somehow felt that being the ranking member was going to be as easy as it had been on our ranking members to be ranking member under Republican. Well, it didn't work out that way. For one thing, it was very hard. It was hard. The 104th was mean-spirited. The remarks that were being made about how the Democrats had mistreated the Republicans and all that phooey was just hard to take. The whole legislative process was changed. Instead of going through committees, you'd have a bill that would just pop up out of the clear blue sky, go straight to the Rules Committee and nobody knew it but two or three people; next thing you know, the next day it's on the floor. No discussion of the bill or anything like that. You know—great confusion. And then, even though I was part of the leadership, we had these meetings all day long about what could be done about this, what can be done about that. We didn't have enough members to fill up the slots on the committees. And all those.... It was just complete turmoil. And that was just a nerve-wracking. And I thought—I don't need this. It's time to go. [chuckling] And I went.
POUSSAINT: But you were going to be a shoo-in for another term, but you....
COLLINS: No, I had a feeling. I had a strong feeling that the pendulum had swung the other way and that if I didn't leave then, I'd be another 10-15 years waiting for my chance to be chair of the full Government Operations Committee when I'd already spent 20 years waiting on that.
POUSSAINT: So you just said....
COLLINS: I didn't need to do that anymore.
POUSSAINT: It's time to go.
COLLINS: It's time to go. You need to know when to hold 'em and you need to know when to fold 'em. And so I folded.
POUSSAINT: How hard was the transition?
COLLINS: Not at all. You know, I knew it was time to go. I had already spoken to Bud Myers—you might remember Bud Myers, my AA [administrative assistant]—two years before. In fact, two years before I had gone to see Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son of Mayor Daley, and I told him that I was not going to run again, and he said, well, he went to go one more term while I got somebody ready to take my place, so I did. But...so I knew and he knew that I was not going to go beyond the 104th. So I called him up and told him I was keeping my word, I was not going to run anymore, he said he was sorry to hear it but that he understood.
POUSSAINT: And so you packed up and walked away.
COLLINS: I did.
POUSSAINT: Now, you say if you had it to do over again, you wouldn't.
COLLINS: I wouldn't.
POUSSAINT: When you look back on those 23 years—I man, more than two decades in Congress—and all the things that you managed to do and accomplish, does that not count for anything? Do you not have a sense of pride?
COLLINS: I have a sense of pride and I have a sense of accomplishment, but I think the thing.... The older I get, what I find to be the most important thing in my life should have been my son. Maybe at some point or other I've given myself a guilt trip or something that's still going on, I don't know that. But perhaps that may be the case. But one reason why I moved.... When I went back to Chicago, it was not the same. And I think it was not the same because some of my friends had passed on, and all of that. But there were still people there that I knew. I still have family in Chicago, lots of family. But I wanted to be near my son. I wanted to be near him and I wanted to be near my granddaughter. I wanted to somehow see her grow up. It was something I felt I had missed and I wanted feel her—her essence and her spirit—and go through these things with her and see her laugh as I did this past Sunday for her 16th birthday and watch how she has grown up, you know, to be in nice little young lady and all of that. And that's what I want—now. Some people ask me why I've never married again. I don't think my husband could not have been replaced, but I wanted to spend more time with the family that I have now, because I've missed that, I've missed them. I like to think that I made a contribution as a member of Congress, but I'd also like to think that I made a contribution to my family—as a mother, as a grandmother, as a cousin and as a niece to my Aunt Eva.
POUSSAINT: It's about family.
COLLINS: It's about family.
Speaking Out Against Gangster Rap
POUSSAINT: You spoke out against gangsta rap music.
COLLINS: Yes, I did, because I had heard gangster rap music and.... I'll tell you how I got into it. Now, I'm going to be very honest about this. C. Delores Tucker had called me up and said, “Cardiss, have you heard this gangsta rap?” I said, “No.” I said, “I don't even know what it is.” So I talked to Eddie Arnold in my office. I said, “What is gangsta rap?” He said, “Ahh, the kids listen to this stuff.” And so I said, “Well, I wanna hear it.” He said, “Well, Miss Collins, you don't wanna hear it.” And so I said, “I’m going to have a hearing on gangsta rap.” And so I had a hearing on gang—you know, crazy—I had a hearing on gangsta rap. And C. Delores or somebody on our staff had all the words of this particular record or CD on the bulletin board, and I read those and I was shocked. I mean, I was absolutely shocked. And that's when I had the hearing on gangsta rap. I thought it was the most awful thing I had ever heard. And when I thought that there were young kids listening to this, that was just the most...that they should just not be doing it, that the recording studio should be recording it, and all that sort of thing. And I was bitterly against it—I still am.
POUSSAINT: Was it frustrating that more couldn't be done?
COLLINS: Well, yes, it was. I felt that I had done all I could do. C. Delores took it on to another level. She took it to the White House or something, but there was nothing anybody could do about it. I mean, freedom of speech and all that.
POUSSAINT: What do you think it says about, I don't know, the younger generation or whoever, that this kind of music would be so popular in the black community amongst young people?
COLLINS: Well, I don't hold the young people responsible—I know they like to listen to it. I hold the publishers are this music and the guys who record, the recording studios who make the decision to publish it or to print it, or however they go about doing that, and selling these CDs to these young people for that. Once these young people hear it, then they think it's okay. But now we look back—look forward, I guess, from that moment on—we find that so many young men and women who were doing this kind of stuff have gone on to sort of clean up their acts and get on television. I’m thinking of the young man that's on...oh, what's the name of it?
COLLINS: Ice-T. Ice-T—that he's gone on and done better and so forth. But, I just don't approve of it. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, an old timer—but I just don't think it's the kind of thing that young people ought to be listening to. But their parents have to make a decision.
POUSSAINT: Yeah, they don't seem to have a whole lot of control, in a lot of instances....
COLLINS: Well, that says something about the parents, too.
Asserting Myself During My Term
POUSSAINT: In terms of talking about your really asserting yourself, I mean, you even—if what I read was correct—you even made the determination that President Carter was not going to address the Black Caucus dinner.
COLLINS: That's right.
COLLINS: Well, President Carter had...we had talked...you know, we had these meetings with President Carter and all that, and we were talking to him about some of the legislation that he had said that he wouldn't support and all these sort of things, and he just would not budge. And I think the thing that bothered me the most was that when we went to the White House to talk to him, you know, he just didn't seem to understand what we were saying and he wouldn't budge and he wouldn't commit to certain kinds of legislation that was going to be beneficial to us, and he was talking about this stuff about, you know, everything but we wanted to talk about, and then we went outside—no, we were inside the little press area there and just talking. Well, one time we went there and Jody Powell wouldn't let us stay in the press room, made us go outside, said that he wasn't going to let us dump on the President—listen to this: DUMP on the President—inside the White House. Well, of course I said, “This is our White House just like it is yours,” you know. Oh, I got so angry about that I didn't know what to do. But we could try to work with the President. We'd ask him to come to the caucus meeting. Well, he couldn't come to the caucus meeting until it was election time and all of that. So we decided that we just was not going to invite him to come to our dinner and talk nonsense. It was not a time for nonsense. It was a time to talk about housing, about jobs, about education, about the things that we felt were important for our constituencies and since he didn't seem to want to talk about that in the White House, why should he come to our dinner and talk about everything else? So I said he didn't need to come.
POUSSAINT: And you....
COLLINS: 'Course there was a big argument about that, you know, and Parren Mitchell's cousin, uncle, whoever it was, you know, was angry about it, had a big thing in a newspaper about how we should have invited the President. It wasn't mandatory for us to invite the President if we don't see eye to eye with the President.
POUSSAINT: But that was something that certainly got you a lot of attention, also.
COLLINS: Well, yeah, I guess it did get me a lot of attention but I didn't much care.
POUSSAINT: [laughing] And what was the President in the White House's reaction to all of this?
COLLINS: Well, my birthday came up the following September and he invited me to the White House and gave me a red rose.
POUSSAINT: So he understood...
COLLINS: He understood.
POUSSAINT: ...how the game was played.
COLLINS: He understood what was going on. Um hum.
POUSSAINT: Did he ever start responding substantively the way you wanted him to respond?
COLLINS: Not really. I think he tried. I just don't think he understood how deep, how deeply rooted our concerns were. I think he tried to understand, but I just don't think he did.
POUSSAINT: There are other issues and bills that got a lot of publicity, and a particular argument on the floor with Hyde, where apparently you got very angry...
POUSSAINT: Tell me the details of that.
COLLINS: Well, I've forgotten what all the details were, but I do remember this: Henry Hyde made some statement.... Henry represented the Oak Park part of the last district that I...the last part of the configuration of the 7th Congressional District that I represented—and he made a statement that in essence, he knew more about the district than I did, or something like that, and I had to let him know that that was not the case. And I was very angry that he said that, and I had to ask to have his words taken down.
POUSSAINT: So you were taking on all comers?
COLLINS: Yes right. That's right. Because he had no right to say a thing like that. That was number one. And secondly he had not served that district for nearly 10 years. He didn't know what the he—excuse me! [laughing]—he didn't know what was going on in that district. Don't write...don't put that down [laughing].
POUSSAINT: [laughing] Okay.
COLLINS: [laughing] Cut that out.
POUSSAINT: Well you only got out the “he--,” you know. [laughing] “He--” is all right, you know. That's not a problem.
COLLINS: He didn't know what was going on.
POUSSAINT: Yeah. What about pressures from the...within the Black Caucus? There were some members of the Black Caucus who were quite radical in their views.
POUSSAINT: And I'm sure that they put a lot of pressure on you.
COLLINS: Well, they were radical in their views, but I found out one thing. Let me tell you what I did. I don't know if...I know it had not been done by any member...by any chair of the Black Caucus while I had been a member of the caucus. I lived at 2909 Garfield Street at that time in Washington. I had a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus in my house, and they all came. We didn't talk about any caucus business or anything else. We just had a meeting among ourselves. I served food and drink and what-have-you, and we just had a nice time. I felt that was necessary for us to know each other. Not about our appearance on the floor, not about how well we can articulate on a certain bill, not about how sharp we were if we were from California, or any of those kind of things—just get to know each other. We did that a couple of times. I think that that made us more aware of each other as people—not as Congresspersons—and because of that we understood, we knew that XYZ was going to go off on path over here, we knew that Q and R and S were going to be over here and we knew the people who were going to go around the middle all the time—and that was very helpful
POUSSAINT: And your role was to sort of be the center that would pull all of these different...
COLLINS: Try to pull all those people in.
POUSSAINT: That must've been hard.
COLLINS: It was not easy, but it was worth doing. It was worth doing to have a united body, to the extent that we could. I felt if we had a consensus of opinion that—that's when I began to use “consensus” of opinion. The “consensus” of the caucus is so-and-so. I never said that it was unanimous because most the time it wasn't. But there was a consensus that so on and so on and so on and so on—and that was enough.
POUSSAINT: How would you reach that consensus? How would you work with people to get this...
COLLINS: I was just flat out-and-out ask how they were going to vote and they would tell me, and I'd try to persuade him to do something one way or the other—however I thought it should be. But if they wouldn't do it, I wouldn't pressure them because I figured I had to come back again another day. No use of making them angry over this because tomorrow it's going to be something else.
POUSSAINT: Taking the long view, kind of.
Race in Congress
POUSSAINT: We talked somewhat about the other black members of Congress at the time. What about the majority of congress people who are white males? How did they respond to you?
COLLINS: They responded as favorably as they could. There's one thing that you sense immediately when you walk on the floor, in that everybody has a common purpose and that's to represent their district, and you're not questioned about how you vote based on your district. If you say this is good for my district, people accept how you do. Which is a good thing, because you can't be question about what you think your district needs because nobody knows your district the way you're supposed to know your district. There was some question when we began to get—and this is in relation to the Black Caucus—when we began to get members from the South coming into the Black Caucus because didn't always vote the way we voted, those of us who were from the Midwest so forth, and North. We had to learn that they had to represent their districts, also. [unintelligible] For example, if we were asked to vote for a farm bill, now we don't grow a grain of corn in the 7th Congressional District of Illinois, but we do have friends on the caucus who have farms that they represent their district. And in order to help each other do their jobs, perhaps we would have voted for a farm piece of legislation or something like that. That was the difference. At first, when we looked on the boards and saw that they had voted like us, we wondered why, but then we had a learning curve that we had to get through, a learning period we had to get through to understand that each of us were individuals. That was hard. But it worked.
POUSSAINT: And when you first started.... There are some African-American Congresswomen who have talked about...some members...some of the white congress people—men—who treated them not as equals. You know, would call them by their first name; would, you know, be patronizing to them.
COLLINS: Well, maybe I was too old when I came in. I came in when I was 41, and I didn't have that experience because for some reason, the chairman always called you by your name—you know, you they never call you by your first name or anything like that—and other members began to do the same. Now, in the Illinois delegation, we called each other by our first names pretty much, you know, Danny Rostenkowski, you could call him Ros or Rosty or Danny or whatever he was. But I didn't get into a lot of that outside of that. I didn't have anybody calling me by my first name. I think I would have spoken out against it if they had. Now what I have heard—I have heard derogatory remarks being made by some members against other members who happen to be of other races, but you're going to find that in any group of people. But wherever I heard it, I let them know that I was listening.
Entering Congress After my Husband's Death
Balancing a Child and Politics
COLLINS: I guess at that time you didn't plan births like they do now, you know. My little cousin recently married and she has told me with great certainty that she didn't plan to have any children until two years from now and so forth and so on. She has it all figured out and all of that. Well, we hadn't quite figured on kids. Kevin decided to come anyway. [laughing] But it was all right, because I my cousin—I have a lot of cousins. I'm an only child, really, in the truest sense of the word, for my mother and my father. But I guess I was fortunate because my cousin Rosetta still was a stay-at-home mother and she lived one-two-three-four-five, five blocks from us, and when I found out Kevin was going to be born I had already made arrangements with her to take care of Kevin while I worked, so that was not the biggest problem. But he was a daddy's boy from the beginning.
POUSSAINT: He was...in the sense that George just naturally...
POUSSAINT: ...took to...
COLLINS: And even though George was very busy, you know, there was always time for Kevin. There was always time for Kevin. As a matter of fact, sometimes he would even call the house and say, “Send Kevin over here to the office because we're going to do this,” or “We're going to do this and we're going to have dinner,” or “We're going to go to something,” or “Send some popcorn,” or whatever it was. You know, they were very close.
POUSSAINT: Was there any discussion about your—once Kevin was born—of you staying home?
COLLINS: I wanted to, but then money was very short at that time. That was before George got to be the alderman and the ward committeeman. That was when he was still working for the 26th in California and then from there he went to the park district, and money was just short so we just couldn't do it.
POUSSAINT: So you became...you started the juggling act that ...
POUSSAINT: ... millions of women...
POUSSAINT: ...have to go through, and it sounds if because you had some family support...
COLLINS: Oh, a lot of that.
POUSSAINT: ... that you were able to do...
POUSSAINT: ...what needed to be done.
COLLINS: That's right.
Political Changes in Chicago/Political Changes for my Husband
COLLINS: He was working with the...I want to say 26th in California. I can't think what...it's the correction, city correction unit. I've known it so long as 26th in California which is where they put the people in jail and they hold 'em there for a while. If you go to the 26th in California, you might be there for a short period of time before being moved to another correctional institution. And that's what he was doing—he was a guard there at that time. But he wanted to do something more than that, and he had begun to talk about getting deeper into politics and so forth. In fact, we had discussed his moving out of one ward to another where the opportunities were better for him to get higher political office, or at least more advantages than he was where he was at that time.
POUSSAINT: So, his interests in politics was something that...
COLLINS: Was already there when I met him, yes.
POUSSAINT: And he saw politics as what—a way to...?
COLLINS: As a way. In Chicago at that time, for many African-American men, it was an avenue that had not been presented before. There was a lot of movement going on in Chicago. People were moving from the Republican party and had begun to move from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party; had begun to move from right around downtown area to the western side of Chicago, Chicago's West Side; had begun to move from the old core around 31st and South Park, but what is now King Drive, and move further south, on the south side of Chicago. These had been African-Americans who were just...there was a lot of movement going on and as that movement went on, more and more black people were replacing the white people who were the political bosses in those wards. And in order to get the kind of political support you needed to have in order to ask people to vote the way you wanted to in the Democratic machine, you had to have people who looked like you. And Mayor Daley, of course, recognized that fact so he had big recruitment drives going on for precinct captains who were African-Americans in those communities that were being taken over by African-Americans. My husband was in a community, was in a ward, the 25th Ward, which was largely Italian—very largely Italian. The ward committeeman was a man by the name of Vito Marzullo. My husband's uncle was the precinct captain in that ward, and the highest job that he was able to get for his people was either janitorial someplace or as a guard, and the job that he had for himself, which was doing something down at the City Hall. As the West Side began to open up, there was a ward called the 24th Ward Democratic Organization. The first African-American to be the ward leader there was a fellow by the name of Benjamin F. Louis. Ben Louis became the alderman and was seeking black precinct captains, so he approached my husband—that he had just met somewhere along the line—and asked him if he would leave 25th Ward, where his sponsorship was, to come to the 24th. So George—this was before we were married—George said, well, what did I think? And I thought it was a great opportunity. He said that he had thought it was a great opportunity and what did I think it would last and all. We had talked about it. So he decided to go to the 24th Ward. Once he got into the 24th Ward, he became what would now be called the A.A. to the alderman, Ben F. Louis. Ben Louis got himself killed.
POUSSAINT: What do you mean, “got himself killed”?
COLLINS: Well, somebody killed him. The newspapers claimed it was because he was in charge at the insurance in the ward. Now let me explain this ward situation to you real fast. Whoever the committeeman was—Jake Arvey of the old 24th Ward in Chicago was the committeeman. Ben was the alderman. Ben had been allowed to handle all of the insurance for all the stores, restaurants, whatever kind of business there was in the ward, because Jake Arvey had his other sources of income, whatever they were that he was doing. Ben tried to take over...the scuttlebutt was that Ben tried to take over more than he should have of the assets of the ward, and that he was killed. They shot him in the head. When Ben got himself killed, as I said, according to the newspapers there was only one person left who was the A.A. who knew all the avenues that were there and that was my husband, George. George then became the alderman of the 24th Ward.
POUSSAINT: Did it bother him that his predecessor had been shot to death?
COLLINS: It bothered us all to death. It bothered all of us, 'cause it was right there in the ward office. As a matter of fact, George had gone to Northwestern to pick me up from school and we had passed right by the office—we had to pass right by there to go home. And when we passed by there, the phone rang just as we were coming in the door—I guess we'd been there four or five minutes—and somebody said that George needed to come right away to the headquarters office because they had found Ben dead in the office. Well of course, I wanted to go, too. George said no, I had to stay at home I couldn't go. And so I stayed home because women did what their husbands said then—you know, that was a strange time in this country, but I did. [laughing] But, you know, you did what your husband said in those—whoo—awful days. But I stayed home and he went there. But anyway, after all this was over and done with, George then became the alderman. Which didn't have, you know.... He had the job of alderman but he couldn't make all the big decisions and he couldn't run the ward because the ward belonged to the ward committeeman, who was the guy who was responsible for the votes that came out the ward. And he was responsible directly to the mayor. Okay. The first time the election came up for ward committeeman, George ran and became the committeeman. So he had the two most important jobs in the ward. That enabled him, then, to be able to say who was going to run, who was going to be selected to go before Cook County democratic organization to become congressman later on down the road. And that's where his strength came from
POUSSAINT: Uh huh.
COLLINS: So it just smoothed right along.
POUSSAINT: So it sounds like he had I a real kind of natural talent for dealing with the intricacies of the Democratic machine in Chicago, which is...
COLLINS: Well yes, he did. He was...George was very, very smart—but I like to say that I ran off of his campaigns, because he was busy, and whenever...you know, we would talk about a lot of things about what we should do and how, you know, whether I should continue in school and blah blah blah, and how he should go about or whether he should go about staying in the politics and all of that. But as far as we could see there was just no other avenue that could take him where he wanted to go.
POUSSAINT: Where was that? Where did he want to go?
COLLINS: He wanted to go...he wanted to earn as much money as he could... Our saying was “earn as much money as you can for the same eight hours that your going to put in.” That was sort of our motto, almost. So he knew that if he stayed in politics, it would enable—and do a good job—he could become the ward committeeman, or he could become the man in charge of the streets and sanitation in the ward—and there was a lot of money to be gotten that way at that time; the city was open, because—or he could become another A.A. to another ward committeeman. And all those things were money-producing jobs.
My Family History
COLLINS: I can trace it—boy—only back to my grandmother on my mother's side.
POUSSAINT: And in terms of...what do you know about her, where she came from, or anything like that.
COLLINS: Well, I know my grandmother came from Whiteville, Tennessee. And her father's name was Erastus White, who was a slave, of course. And at some point in time he became a freed slave and owned a farm in Whiteville, Tennessee. He was the father of ...ooh, seven, nine children. My grandmother was the third daughter, if I'm correct—I believe that's what my mother told me—and her name was Emma, Emma Robertson.
POUSSAINT: And how did the move go from Whiteville, Tennessee, to your being in Chicago?
COLLINS: Okay—my grandmother sent my mother—my mother was not married at the time, she was a young girl and she had been working with my grandmother in Whiteville and had grown up on my grandfather's farm and my mother wanted to go someplace else, she was tired of farming and all of that—so my grandmother sent her to St. Louis to be with her sister, whose name was Birdie, B-I-R-D-I-E, Birdie Johnson. And Birdie took my mother in because mother wanted to go to the city and Birdie lived in St. Louis. And when she got to St. Louis, my mother fell in love with this beautiful, handsome, tall, dark, young man whose name was Finley Robertson and married him in St. Louis. That was in 1927. In 1929, my mother had her first child, who was stillborn, and in 1931, I was born, to Finley and Rosia Mae Robertson. My mother was a Robertson by birth, but she was also a Robertson in a different family of Robertsons by marriage, so she was Rosia Mae Robertson Robertson.
POUSSAINT: [laughing] Uh huh. That's fascinating. And on your father side, can you go back at all?
COLLINS: No, I only know that my grandfather's name was Artie Robertson and my grandmother's name was Dora Robertson.