Elsie Mason - Heroes Across Pacific Magazine

Elsie Mason: A True Civil Rights Hero
Her death didn’t grab headlines like Coretta Scott King’s did. But Elsie Mason and her late husband captured heaven’s attention.  by J. Lee Grady

Last week, just one day before Coretta Scott King’s funeral was aired from an Atlanta megachurch, a lesser-known black woman named Elsie Louise Washington Mason was buried quietly in Memphis. She was the widow of Bishop C.H. Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination.

Mrs. Mason’s funeral was not aired on CNN. No U.S. presidents attended. Her body was not displayed in any government rotundas. Oprah did not walk past her casket.

But Elsie Mason’s life deserved national recognition.

There are always significant 'little people'
behind the national icons we celebrate.


She died at Memphis’ Methodist University Hospital on Jan. 31 at the age of 98. Although her memory had begun to fade, she was still a living scrapbook of the civil rights era—and of the Christian spirituality that undergirded it.

When she was born, Teddy Roosevelt was president, women wore floor-length skirts and only rich people had telephones. Blacks could not vote, and rarely were they allowed to worship with whites.

The radical message that Elsie and her husband preached would change that.

C.H. Mason helped dismantle institutionalized racism long before Martin Luther King Jr. preached his first sermon. Mason did this not by staging nonviolent protests or by organizing political rallies. Instead he invited blacks and whites to gather at the foot of the cross, where he believed all human beings found equality.

A Baptist at first, Mason visited the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906, became a Pentecostal and began to spread the message of the Holy Spirit’s power throughout the South. His black Baptist colleagues rejected his message, which included a belief in speaking in tongues, healing and miracles.

After Mason organized COGIC in 1907, both blacks and whites attended his meetings—sometimes sparking race riots. Mason’s influence grew to the point that he ordained dozens of white Pentecostal ministers at a time when all other Christian denominations were separated by race.

During an interview with Charisma in 1996, at age 88, Elsie recalled the early days of Pentecostal revivals in black communities in the South. In Texas, she said, Mason would attract huge crowds.

“Crutches were lined up against the walls because the people didn’t need them anymore,” she said. “In Memphis, a lady took sick during our convocation, and at that time doctors weren’t as prevalent as they are today, and there were hardly any hospitals for Negroes. So they sent for Bishop Mason, and he prayed until the Lord raised her.”

During her younger years, Elsie edited COGIC’s newspaper The Whole Truth and worked as a secretary in the denomination’s missions department. She even served as a missionary in Haiti and founded an orphanage.

Before Mason died in 1961, he would lay a spiritual foundation for the civil rights movement. COGIC ministers did not get as politically involved in the struggle as Baptists like King, but they preached, prayed and prophesied about social justice. Inherent in their Pentecostal message was the concept that the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, “washed away the color line” and made all Christians equal, regardless of race, class or gender.

It was the bedrock principle that eventually broke the power of American racism. But those early black Pentecostals—and the whites who worked alongside them—didn’t get any credit for the sweeping social changes their movement triggered.

Members of COGIC certainly supported civil rights efforts. After Mason’s death in 1961, Elsie, a very young widow at that point, gave an offering to help black sanitation workers in the city who were striking because of unfair pay. “When the sanitation workers went on strike, they met at Mason Temple COGIC and she made the first donation, $90 of her own money, to buy food for them,” COGIC bishop W.L. Porter told the Commercial Appeal of Memphis last week.

Mason did not live to see Jim Crow laws dismantled, and he had been dead seven years when King was slain in Memphis in 1968. Ironically, King’s last speech (the famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address) was given at the church named in Mason’s honor, Mason Temple COGIC in downtown Memphis. King was assassinated the next day.

In a similar coincidence, King’s widow died almost the same day Elsie Mason breathed her last. It was a fitting reminder that there are always significant “little people” behind the national icons we celebrate.

More attention should have been focused in Elsie Mason’s direction. But from her vantage point now, I doubt she cares about the applause of men.

J. Lee Grady is editor of Charisma and an award-winning journalist. He writes his Fire In My Bones column for Charisma Online twice a week.

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