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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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

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.

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.

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Category: Church History

About the Author: J. Lee Grady is an author, award-winning journalist and ordained minister. For 17 years he worked for Charisma magazine, one of America ’s most widely distributed evangelical Christian publications, and he served as editor for 11 of those years. He is the author of several books including Set My Heart on Fire: Ignite Your Confidence, Boldness, and Passion for God (2016), Ten Lies The Church Tells Women: How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (2006), 10 Lies Men Believe: The Truth About Women, Power, Sex and God—and Why it Matters (2011), Fearless Daughters of the Bible: What You Can Learn from 22 Women Who Challenged Tradition, Fought Injustice and Dared to Lead (2012), 25 Tough Question About Women and the Church: Answers from God's Word That Will Set Women Free (2013), and The Holy Spirit Is Not for Sale: Rekindling the Power of God in an Age of Compromise (2010). He founded The Mordecai Project, confronting the abuse of women globally and helping release women into ministry. Twitter: @LeeGrady

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