Hilda Mason was not only a longtime DC councilmember (1977-99) but also a longtime socialist, serving for decades as a national vice-chair of DSA – making her one of the few DSA members in elected office prior to 2017. For her entire tenure she was the most progressive member of the Council, championing children, the disadvantaged, the elderly, human and civil rights, and statehood for DC. She became known as “Grandmother of the World” and the conscience of DC politics. Mason passed away in 2007 at the age of 91. This interview, in the September 1983 Socialist, took place just before the August 27 March for Jobs, Peace and Freedom, a 20th anniversary commemoration of the historic 1963 march and rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
D.C. Councilmember-at-large Hilda Mason received a unanimous endorsement from DC/MD DSA in her 1982 campaign, which is not surprising at all when one considers her long record of dedication to the civil, economic and human rights movements. A teacher by training, Mason has served on the D.C. Council since 1977, before which she was a member of the D.C. Board of Education. This interview was conducted by Socialist staffer Stu Gay in early August . Mason will be a featured speaker, along with Michael Harrington and Manning Marable, at the DC/MD DSA reception following the August 27th march.
How did you come to be a political activist?
My parents were involved in the freedom struggle for black people in the south – not too far removed from slavery – surrounded by oppression from Klan-type people, lynchings and all that. But let me add quickly that, even though there were people like that, there were also very good white people, kind and encouraging and loving.
There were the kind who burned down houses and there were white people who helped my father get started in business by providing small loans, more than once, so he wouldn’t have to go to the banks.
Both my mother and father were involved in every community effort there was, whether it was education, church or civic they were involved. That was my foundation – my parents.
And so when I began to operate on my own, it was natural to me to get involved in all the movements around, including the NAACP, Urban League, CORE, Friends of SNCC, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party . . . oh, there are so many more. I was a supporter of everything and that’s how I learned my organizing skills. I supported these groups by helping to raise money, providing housing when groups came to Washington to lobby, finding medical care, providing food, taking them to march sites and rallies…
So the Civil Rights Movement of the early Sixties was your training ground?
Well, yes that’s what firmed up my thinking and got me thinking more directly about electoral politics. Let me interrupt, before we go any further talking about the “civil rights movement,” however, to point out something. My mother and father were working in the civil rights movement before there ever was such a thing – before today’s leaders were born. So when people today talk as if they created “the civil rights movement,” remember that a lot of people came before them to make it possible. Because isn’t it civil rights whenever anybody works to protect and make better the lives of anyone?
Anyhow, I worked in a program at the Morgan School, which is now Marie Reed in Adams Morgan. It was one of the first schools in the country to fight for local control in education.
I learned a lot in this effort because it was the first real “revolution” in which I was involved. The City school board didn’t want to give up power; they didn’t want to let us run our own show. It was a struggle against the power structure and we won.
And I learned about the difficulties of getting people to agree. Because when we did get control of the school, we couldn’t get the community to agree on objectives. That was very disappointing to me. And I think that’s one of the biggest problems in organizing – finding any kind of consensus.
More specifically to the “Civil Rights Movement,” what positive changes have you seen in the past twenty years?
Well, what I see mostly are semblances of change. Laws have been passed on the federal and local levels to provide equal opportunity – banning discrimination and so forth – but when you look, these laws are not being implemented. People find ways to go around them.
Where must the Civil Rights Movement direct itself to make real changes?
I’ve done some real hard thinking about the thrust of the civil rights movement. Now I’m not being critical, but we were knocking on the door and once we got in, people have not defined where we want to go.
We appeared to accept getting inside the door, but now that we are inside, we have not looked back at the root problems of the world – and I’m not just talking about the U.S. – to find a consensus on where we are going. And not even just on where we are going but on what kind of world we want to build.
Rev. William Finlator, a member of the ACLU Board of Directors, recently argued in a national meeting of that organization that people’s civil rights are only going to be solved when economic rights are solved, too. How do you respond to that?
I agree with him 100 percent. What is a civil right if you don’t have food and shelter and health care? While a few people have all the wealth of the world, everybody else is struggling.
What we need to organize toward is economic democracy – a democracy that’s economically equitable. Now a lot of people get real afraid when you start talking about economic changes; everybody grabs for their pocketbook. But if we really want freedom, we have to build an economically equal system.
It’s very hard to develop a concept for this; it’s hard to create a program for it. And I don’t even know if it’s possible to create. And it’s even harder when we look at all the greed around us. We don’t trust each other, that’s the major thing. If I were to hand money over to the community pot, and others do, too, somebody would take off with it. I’m beginning to be afraid that we are basically selfish and greedy people. It would take an awful lot of hard work to get people to listen to you when you start talking about economic change. I just don’t know if it’s possible.
My father, when he ran his businesses, his junk business for instance, made lots of money. And he paid his workers very well. And at certain periods, I don’t know how often but two, three or four times a year, or when he made a big sale, he divided up his profits with his workers. But I’ve seen that kind of equality very rarely since.
No, the community I dream of needs to be one of community and worker equity. Properties need to be used for the needs of the community – and run by the community – with the profits for the workers. But I don’t’ think anybody cares enough to do that now.
What can we do to build this community?
A few years ago I went to a national DSOC conference, and I was in a session and many people started attacking the way people worship God, and how black people worship. Now if you look at the history of black people – that’s the only thing that kept blacks alive.
If it wasn’t for religion, my father and mother would not have lived. It was their pillar. My father and his brother were a product of a rape of a slave by the slave-owner’s son. When they were born they were sold to another plantation. My father had nothing but his religion. His whole community lived for the church; the church is where they congregated when the Klan and other oppressors came to seek them out.
It’s not that I disrespect DSA people. I like the people. But if I go out into the cold weather you can’t take my coat off; you can’t take away what has kept people alive and able to make it.
I call myself a religious liberal. I don’t believe there is any god or any heaven but I don’t know. I know some people would say religion is a false blanket – but I don’t know. If I knew it was a false blanket, I could accept the argument. But I don’t know. And how can you strip somebody of their religion or beliefs if you’re not sure?
It’s what educating is all about. When you’re a teacher you don’t rip somebody up because they’re wrong, you help accommodate them and make them understand so they can build themselves and their beliefs up.
Some people will argue that we must spend what little time we have battling the issue which has the potential to wipe out the entire future of mankind – nuclear weapons. How can we build while destroying?
It is very important to fight for both of them – which I do – which means I don’t get very much sleep. There is no way you can let go of the struggle for a nuclear free world and just fight for economic democracy.
On the other hand I feel very bad when I talk to groups like WILPF [Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – eds] and ADA and we only talk of war and nuclear weapons. When you talk about war, and don’t talk about how to avoid another showdown, you’re just gonna fight the same battles again and again.
I tend to be a builder because you can’t just tear things down. You’ve got to have proposals for tomorrow and for a real new world.
You don’t seem very positive about the world today.
I’m not very positive about the world – I’m just realistic. I’m just not as encouraged as I would like to be though I’m not totally discouraged. And one of the reasons I’m not is that other people are as disappointed as I am.