Ethel Mae Matthews: The Firebrand
Ethel Mae Matthews was born in 1933 in the town of Loachapoke, Alabama to two sharecroppers. Her mother was a Black woman and her father was a member of of the Cherokee tribe. From a very young age, she helped her parents pick cotton on their farm, often leaving school when it was harvest season. Similar to many children of sharecroppers, the lack of a continuous education in regard to her circumstances made it difficult for her to keep up with school work. She was often reprimanded for having issues with literacy. However, it was another hardship that lead her to leave school altogether in the sixth grade. At twelve years old, she became pregnant and got married, then moved to Atlanta at the age of seventeen with her four children.
Through her determination, Matthews gained her GED and became one of the loudest voices for the rights of the poor, especially mothers, children, and the elderly. When she decided it was time to take action, it didn't matter if anyone else was with her, as she was not afraid to picket alone. As the founder and president of the Atlanta Welfare Rights Organization, she became well known by the officials and politicians in Atlanta for organizing sit-ins, leading marches, and demanding the rights that she believed the poor were owed. In one such instance, she marched on the Georgia legislature looking for the Governor to protest welfare cuts. Matthews and her fellow protestors took over the Capital, and it has been said that they were singly responsible for the security measures there afterward. Mayor Sam Massel of Atlanta once told reporters that there were only two things that sent chills up his spine: the first was the failure of his cornerstone transit legislation and the second was his secretary saying "Mrs. Matthews is on line one."
Matthews was a force to be reckoned with. She stood in front of bulldozers to prevent the destruction of the Peoplestown Community Center, advocated for the rights of welfare recipients to see the welfare manual, fought for more surplus foods, and for housing rights under the "Model Cities" program. She was always a critical voice about police brutality, spoke out on sanitation issues, and kept aware of any welfare causes that arose.
She also ran for Atlanta City Council. When Matthews found that there were fees prohibiting her from running, she worked with Atlanta legal aid lawyer David Webster to change the law so that future candidates could have the amount waved. Matthews lost at first, but was able to get her own fee waived while she challenged the law in the Supreme Court. Before the highest court in the land was graced by her presence, however, the Georgia General Assembly changed the law so that all indigent candidates could have the fee waived.
Ethel Mae Matthews was not a great advocate solely because she could stand up to politicians, but because she truly cared about the concerns of the people in her community. Of course, once she had made up her mind about a solution there was no stopping her. As she said in an interview "I don't let nobody, I mean nobody, tell me what I can't do."
Shortly after her death in 2005, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring Ethel Mae Matthews. She also has a housing estate named after her in the area where she lived.
"I was never afraid to speak up and speak out for peace, freedom and equality." Ethel Mae Matthews