Ethel Mae Mathews, fighter for civil rights

Civil rights activist Ethel Mae Mathews could either be a fierce champion or a stubborn adversary.

She could raise your spirits with hope for a better future, or she could raise a finger --- later in life, her cane --- to shake in your face and fill you with frustration or shame.

"She was an absolutely fearless woman and a phenomenal person, but if she didn't like you, you were in serious trouble," said Rick McDevitt of Atlanta, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children.

"She could dress you down, no question about it. But she was unswerving in her support of the poor and the disadvantaged.

"She was an icon who loved her community dearly."

Ethel Mae Mathews became known as a political force to be reckoned with. She was respected for her support of the poor and disadvantaged. / File  April 22, 1996 (RICH ADDICKS/AJC staff)

Credit: Rich Addicks

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Credit: Rich Addicks

Ms. Mathews, 72, died of heart failure Monday at her Atlanta residence.

The funeral is 1 p.m. today at Zion Grove Baptist Church. Murray Bros. Cascade Chapel is in charge of arrangements.

Born in Loachapoka, Ala., and married by the time she was 12, she moved to Atlanta in 1950 alone and rearing four children.

Her friend, Columbus Ward of Atlanta, assistant director of Emmaus House, said her early experience with poverty turned her into a tireless advocate for tenants, poor people, children and the elderly.

"Her father was a sharecropper, and she could not understand why her family never had any money," he said. "They would go out and farm the land but could never gain anything. She just decided she was not going to take any more of people treating her any old way."

And she didn't. She became known as a political force to be reckoned with --- working as a neighborhood organizer, running for Atlanta City Council twice and helping get qualifying fees waived for indigent candidates.

In the '80s, she stood in front of bulldozers and blocked them from demolishing a Peoplestown community center.

In 1993, as the leader of ANUFF --- Atlanta Neighborhoods United for Fairness --- she told the Fulton County Commission, "May God have mercy on y'all's traitoring souls," when she thought its Olympic stadium plans would harm the surrounding neighborhood's residents.

She served as chairwoman of the Peoplestown Advisory Council, as president of the Welfare Rights Organization and as a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger.

In 1993, Ms. Mathews revealed another side of personality when she exhibited her colorful folk art paintings at a Virginia-Highland gallery and drew praise for her natural sense of color and composition. In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, she said, "When I'm doing this, I blot out the world and all my problems and pains."

But, she added, "I was never afraid to speak up and speak out for peace, freedom and equality. God gave me strength to do it."

"She always had a back-up plan, and if plan A didn't work, she'd move on to plan B," said her granddaughter, Yolanda Mathews of Atlanta, who marched as a child at her grandmother's side. And she stuck to it, even if she had to go alone. She would stand up there and picket, regardless if you were there or not."

"You could never tell Ms. Mathews, 'Now, now, be polite,' " said Mr. McDevitt. "She would brush you off like you were a gnat. Polite? No way. You were either right or you were wrong with Ethel Mae."

Survivors include her sons, Lewis Dowdell of McDonough and Adam Yarbrough and Willie George Yarbrough, both of Atlanta; a daughter, Ethel Mae Johnson of Atlanta; 29 other grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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