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
“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
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
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.