Carson was born in Louisville, Kentucky. The daughter of Velma V. Porter, she moved to Indianapolis while still a girl and worked in various positions to support her family. She graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1955 in Indianapolis. She then attended Martin University in Indianapolis and Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. She was a member of Zeta Phi Beta sorority.
In 1965, while working as a secretary at UAW Local 550, she was hired away by newly elected congressman Andrew Jacobs to do casework in his Indianapolis office. When his own electoral prospects looked dim in 1972, he encouraged Carson to run for the Indiana House of Representatives, which she did; she was elected in 1972, serving as a member for four years. In 1976, she successfully ran for the Indiana Senate, where she served for 14 years.
In 1990 she was elected as a trustee for Center Township (downtown Indianapolis), and was responsible for running welfare in central Indianapolis. Carson served six years as a trustee, creating a $6 million surplus from the office's $20 million debt. Jacobs has said Carson "not only took cheats off the welfare rolls, she sued them to get the money". When Jacobs retired in 1996, Carson ran as his replacement in what was then the 10th District, and won Democratic endorsement despite being heavily outspent by party chairman Ann DeLaney, 49 percent to 31 percent.
In the general election she faced Republican Virginia Murphy Blankenbaker, a state senator and stockbroker who, like Carson, was a grandmother with liberal views on abortion and the death penalty. Each raised a similar sum of money, but Carson won 53 percent that November.
Carson had a reputation for being somewhat unpredictable, including votes for anti-terrorism bills and normal trade relations with China. Carson opposed the Iraq war resolution in 2002.
Carson's legislative record included leading Congress to pass a House measure awarding Rosa Parks the Congressional Gold Medal; cosponsoring, with Sen. Richard Lugar, the removal of bureaucratic bottlenecks on child health insurance; and the commemoration of the life and accomplishments of author Kurt Vonnegut (H.RES.324). Some of her other Congressional accomplishments included critical funding to revitalize the Fall Creek Neighborhood in Indianapolis which today includes some of the finest examples of reclaimed urban landscape in the U.S. She also provided outstanding support for the new terminal for the Indianapolis International Airport, which opened November 12, 2008. She focused key attention on health care for U.S. veterans, and frequently visited ailing vets at the Roudebush Medical Center in Indianapolis. She was the first recipient of the Frank O'Bannon Award from Indiana Stonewall Democrats. She was a co-sponsor of the Equal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a member of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Equality Caucus in the U.S. House led by U.S. Representative Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts.
Carson was reelected with little difficulty in 1998 and 2000. Her 2000 campaign attracted a personal appearance by President Bill Clinton that drew thousands to the Indiana State Fairgrounds. In 2006, she traveled from Washington, D.C. to Indianapolis aboard Air Force One with President George W. Bush to appear at Indiana Black Expo.
Her poor health and physical struggles led to tighter-than-expected races afterward. In the 2002 election, her district was renumbered as the 7th District after Indiana lost a Congressional district after the 2000 census, and was made slightly more Republican than its predecessor. Carson faced public affairs specialist Brose McVey. In a heated campaign that led to Carson leaving the stage in protest in their final pre-election debate, she won re-election 53 percent to 44 percent. She was re-elected by just over 11 points in 2004 defeating Republican Andrew Horning and Libertarian Barry Campbell.
Carson defeated Eric Dickerson in the 2006 elections 54 percent to 46 percent, a narrow 8-point margin in a year when most incumbent Democrats skated to victory. In the same election, Democratic challengers toppled Republican incumbents in three Indiana districts much more conservative than Carson's. Carson was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was one of the 31 who voted in the House not to count the electoral votes from Ohio in the 2004 presidential election.
On September 29, 2007, the Indianapolis Star reported that Carson had been an in-patient at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis for the preceding eight days. She was being treated for an infection in her leg near the area where a vein was removed in 1996 during double bypass heart surgery. Before her hospitalization was revealed, Carson missed 42 of 77 votes during the month. Year-to-date, Carson had participated in 87 percent of the House votes.
On November 25, 2007, the Star reported that Carson had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. During her treatment for the leg infection, the cancer was discovered by Carson's doctors. Carson had battled it before, but it had gone into remission. In a statement, Carson said she was ready to return to Washington before "the second shoe fell—heavily."
According to her friend, former U.S. Representative Andy Jacobs, Carson died at about 9:15 AM on December 15, 2007.
On December 21, 2007 Julia Carson's casket was taken to the Indiana Statehouse in downtown Indianapolis by horse-drawn military caisson. Carson became the ninth Hoosier to lie in repose at the Statehouse Rotunda. An early-morning service was held in the statehouse where Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Carson's grandson, City-County Councilman André Carson, gave remarks. Thousands of Hoosiers paid last respects to Carson by visiting the casket and attending an evening ceremony held in the Statehouse, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D), former U.S. Representative Andrew Jacobs, Jr., D-Ind., U.S. Representative Brad Ellsworth, D-Indiana, U.S. Representative Baron Hill, D-Indiana, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, U.S. Representative Diane Watson, D-California, and former Gary, Indiana mayor Richard Hatcher. Rudy Clay, mayor of Gary at the time, presented a key to the city to the Carson family.
The funeral for Julia Carson, held on December 22, 2007 at Eastern Star Baptist Church in Indianapolis, brought thousands of citizens together to pay last respects. Those who spoke at the funeral included Governor Daniels (R), U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, U.S. Senator Evan Bayh, D-Ind., former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, D-Indiana, U.S. Representative Pete Visclosky, D-Indiana, U.S. Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, Indiana House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, Indianapolis Mayor Peterson, radio host and Hoosier native Tavis Smiley, and the Reverend Louis Farrakhan. The funeral services aired on live television in central Indiana. Carson was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. The graveside ceremony included a three-volley salute.
A special election was held on March 11, 2008 to determine Carson's replacement, and her grandson André Carson won the election, defeating his Republican opponent, State Representative Jon Elrod and Libertarian opponent Sean Shepard.
Andre Carson also won the May 2008 Democratic Primary for Congress against six opponents. Andre Carson won the endorsement of U.S. Senator Barack Obama, D-Illinois, for the primary victory.Committee on Financial Services (ranked 10th of 32 Democrats)
United States House Financial Services Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit
United States House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity
Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit
(January 2005 – January 2007)National Journal
Economic: 86.5% Liberal, 10.5% Conservative
Social: 90.5% Liberal, 9% Conservative
Foreign: 83% Liberal, 15.5% Conservative
Americans for Democratic Action: 95
American Civil Liberties Union: 100
Chamber of Commerce of the United States: 41.5
Christian Coalition: 25 (108th Congress)
American Conservative Union: 2
National Taxpayers Union: 11.5
League of Conservation Voters: 94.5
Human Rights Campaign: 88 (108th Congress)