Lucy Randolph Mason (1882-1959): Activist, Reformer and Labor Leader
Editor’s Note: This entry was republished with permission from the AFL-CIO’s “Key People in Labor’s History.”
Introduction: Born near Alexandria, Va., in 1882, Lucy Randolph Mason vowed as a child to continue her family’s long tradition of community service and commitment to human rights. Her father and grandfather were Episcopal ministers; she was also a fifth-generation descendant of the 18th-century statesman George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as the model for the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. Lucy Randolph Mason lived up to her early ambitions. She devoted her life to bringing about more humane conditions for working people, ending racial injustice and ensuring that union organizers throughout the South were guaranteed the constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and due process that George Mason had helped establish.
During this period, Mason stimulated YWCA involvement in economic reform in the black community, and she generated public support for state labor laws that would ensure safer workplaces, end child labor, raise minimum wages and shorten work hours. Mason also traveled throughout the South promoting voluntary employer agreements that incorporated fair labor standards. To aid in this effort, she authored Standards for Workers in Southern Industry (1931), the first pamphlet of its kind. Mason relied on consumer pressure to raise labor standards as well. She belonged to the Union Label League in Richmond and was a frequent speaker to community and labor groups about the importance of buying union-made products and services. During World War I, AFL President Samuel Gompers appointed Mason the Virginia chairwoman of the Women in Industry Committee, a division of the wartime National Advisory Committee on Labor.
In 1932, Mason succeeded Florence Kelley as the general secretary of the National Consumer’s League (NCL), the foremost national organizational advocate of fair labor standards. From the 1900s to the 1930s, the NCL worked tirelessly to pass protective labor laws and to convince consumers to buy only goods and services produced by workers who enjoyed a living wage and decent working conditions. Under Mason, the NCL won the passage of new state labor laws, lobbied for improved labor codes in the 1933 National Recovery Act and helped ensure the passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
During the congressional hearings on the FLSA, Mason met CIO President John L. Lewis. After she confessed to Lewis her desire to return to the South and work with the CIO, Lewis helped arrange a job for Mason as the CIO’s public relations representative for the South. In July 1937, at the age of 55, Mason moved into the Textile Workers Organizing Committee offices in Atlanta, Ga., and became the CIO’s “roving ambassador” for the next 16 years.
Mason never wavered in her belief in the importance of unionizing Southern workers. For Mason, the CIO was “a training ground for citizenship” for Southern workers, a vehicle “to bring democracy to the South” and the means to alleviate the economic and racial injustices experienced by minorities and the poor. Not one to flinch from difficult or dangerous assignments, Mason traveled alone to small towns where union organizers and their sympathizers had been shot, beaten, threatened and jailed. She cornered hostile sheriffs, judges, newspaper editors, politicians and ministers, explaining workers’ rights to organize and bargain under the new federal statutes and promoting an understanding of the need for unions. She was known by friend and foe as “Miss Lucy,” and her status as a white-haired Southern “lady” and the daughter of an old, respected Virginia family often gained her access to community leaders when others were denied. Yet Miss Lucy’s success also rested on her blunt speech, her calm yet steely demeanor and her ability to bring civil liberties violations to the attention of federal officials, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mason convinced Roosevelt to send a special federal investigator to Memphis, Tenn., in 1940, for example, in the wake of vicious attacks on the United Rubber Workers’ organizers who were trying to create an interracial union.
After 1944, Mason spent a considerable portion of her time working with the CIO Political Action Committee in the South, helping register union members, black and white, and working for the elimination of the poll tax. She also forged lasting links between labor and religious groups. She was instrumental in getting the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt a resolution in 1938 recognizing “the right of labor to organize and engage in collective bargaining to the end that labor may have a fair and living wage, such as will provide not only the necessities of life, but for recreation, pleasure, and culture.” In the 1940s, she organized interfaith, multi-union and interracial groups in Atlanta and other Southern cities of workers dedicated to building bridges between organized labor and the churches. Eventually these local groups formed the National Religion and Labor Foundation.
In 1951, due to ill health, Mason retired from active union work. She completed her autobiography, To Win These Rights, in 1952. That same year, she was honored with the Social Justice Award from the National Religion and Labor Foundation. She died in 1959 in Atlanta.
Republished from: AFL-CIO, America’s Unions with permission
This work may also be read through the Hathi Trust.
For further information: The Lucy Randolph Mason Papers at Duke University Libraries
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): AFL-CIO (2016). Lucy Randolph Mason (1882-1959): Activist, reformer and labor leader. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/labor/mason-lucy-randolph-1882-1959-social-welfare-activist-and-reformer/
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