(Feb. 8, 1933-Jan. 17, 2017). Gurtha Mae Dickinson was born on February 8, 1933, in Mounds City, Illinois. She was married to Valjean L. Dickinson, who was a native of South Bend and a longtime civic leader. Dickinson moved to Indianapolis with her husband in 1967 when he became assistant commissioner in the Indiana Department of Correction. Before he died in 1990, he went on to be deputy director of Community Action Against Poverty, associate director of the Community Service Council, and director of the Fall Creek YMCA.

Dickinson was a professional welder with General Motors when she decided to follow her husband into public service. Serving in the state legislature from 1993 to 2007, she is recognized and remembered perhaps best for her fierce advocacy of children and determination for their protection.

In 1992, Dickinson was elected to the Indiana General Assembly to represent House District 95, which stretched from 38th Street on the northeast side up to Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park. This election cycle nationally was known as “the year of the woman” because of the unprecedented increase in female candidates and electoral victories. Dickinson, however, was not new to politics. Her husband served in the Indiana House in 1965 and her father-in-law was elected to multiple terms in the Indiana House and Senate. Dickinson herself had longstanding leadership roles, active in the Democratic Party and in the United Auto Workers, working as a precinct committeeman, ward chairman, and union counselor.

Dickinson authored a number of critical laws that centered on the interest of protecting the vulnerable and the neglected in society. During her term in the state legislature, she proposed a bill that increased penalties for perpetrators convicted of domestic battery (which ultimately passed both chambers and was signed into law) and also wrote another law that added additional protections for individuals testifying in criminal trials.

Arguably her greatest achievement was sponsoring legislation that required a criminal history background check for both regular and contracted school employees who worked with students after five Indianapolis Public School bus drivers failed background checks for criminal behavior. Dickinson also served on the Governor’s Commission on Abused and Neglected Children and Their Families aimed at improving the state’s child protection system. One of the recommendations of the task force was to hire hundreds of additional caseworkers to help sustain the needs of children across the state.

She fought against injustice in representation, too, challenging the legality of multimember legislative districts in the state legislature. Dickinson had run, and lost, elections before she was ultimately successful in 1992. She cited the use of multimember districts, enabling the two overwhelmingly white areas to dilute the vote of the predominantly African American neighborhood in which she resided. Dickinson’s suit maintained this system violated the Voting Rights Act. The state ultimately changed from multimember to single-member districts in 1991, just before her election (see Dickinson V. Indiana State Election Board).

In December 2007, Dickinson retired, citing an interest in devoting more time to her family and personal projects. Upon her death, numerous leaders throughout the city heralded her achievements and recognized the legacy she established in protecting the vulnerable and helping those who needed it most.

Revised June 2021

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