Carl Dewey Perkins was born in Hindman, Kentucky on October 15, 1912, to Dora Calhoun Perkins and James Perkins. Perkins attended high school at Hindman High School and Caney Junior College (now Alice Lloyd College). He worked as a teacher in a Knott County School for 90 students. He then went on to attend the Jefferson School of Law (now known as the University of Louisville School of Law) and graduated in 1935. He passed the bar and served a term as a commonwealth attorney for the thirty-first judicial district of Kentucky.
In 1938 Perkins married Verna Johnson and they had one son, Carl C. Perkins.
During World War II, Perkins enlisted in the United States Army and served a tour in Europe.
In 1940, Perkins was elected as a member of the Kentucky General Assembly was then elected Knott County Attorney in 1941 and reelected in 1945. Perkins resigned January 1, 1948 so that he could counsel the Department of Highways for Frankfort, Kentucky.
He was elected to serve as a Kentucky Representative in 1948 winning against the incumbent Wendell H. Meade.
In 1948 Perkins ran against the incumbent Congressman from Kentucky's 7th District, Wendell H. Meade. Perkins unseated Meade and was elected as a Democrat to the Eighty-first and to the seventeen succeeding Congresses and served from January 3, 1949, until his death. Perkins was the chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor (Ninetieth through Ninety-eighth Congresses, 1967–1984). While a part of the committee, his work helped produce the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and Head Start. The local Head Start in his home city of Hindman, Kentucky is named after Congressman Perkins.
Carl D. Perkins died August 3, 1984, in Lexington, Kentucky after complaining of feeling ill on a flight from Washington. He fell ill on the plane and was pronounced dead of a heart attack on arrival at St. Joseph's Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.
His funeral was widely attended as he was widely regarded as a popular Kentucky politician over the course of his career. Many of his colleagues flew to Kentucky to pay their respects along with thousands of native Kentucky residents.
The funeral proceedings were hosted in the Knott County High School gymnasium that was filled to capacity by colleagues and constituents of the congressman all of which were there to pay their respects. Notable attendees included Senator Edward Kennedy, House Majority Leader Jim Wright, Congressman William H. Natcher and House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neil who gave the eulogy.
Perkins was succeeded in office by his son, Carl C. Perkins.
Perkins's legacy of support to education and the under-privileged is shown by the federal student loan called the Perkins Loan, named for him, as is the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006, which provides federal money for career technical education schooling. The Carl D. Perkins Bridge crossing the Ohio River, the Carl D. Perkins Building on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, and the Carl D. Perkins Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Ashland, Kentucky are named after him. The vocational school in Hindman, Kentucky at Knott County Central High School, Carl D. Perkins Job Corps at Prestonsburg and Carl D. Perkins Rehab Center at Thelma are also named in his honor. Kentucky highway 80 in Hazard, Kentucky is named the Carl D. Perkins Parkway. The Carl D. Perkins Parkway stretches from Hazard, Kentucky through Carl D. Perkins home county of Knott county, Kentucky. The Carl D. Perkins Parkway connects to the Hal Rogers Parkway in Hazard, Kentucky.
Perkins' grave site is in Hindman, Kentucky, in a public cemetery named "Mountain Memory Gardens". Although, when originally buried, he was buried at a private cemetery near his home in Hindman. In 2007 Perkins's body was moved to where he is presently buried at Mountain Memory Gardens. Verna J. Perkins sold the old house and the land. She had since retired to a home for the elderly in Lexington, where she passed away in 2012.