A true lifelong activist, Meta Ellis is still fighting for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights
Meta Ellis is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Meta Ellis attended her first protest when she was 3 years old.
Her parents were activists in their own right. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Ku Klux Klan bombed her house twice.
Even at just a few years old, she knew what was going on around her. She said that being born during the Montgomery Bus Boycott gives you an awareness.
Now, she’s the director of Montgomery Pride United and co-founder of the Bayard Rustin Community Center and Thrift Store. She and her wife, Emma McDaniel-Ellis, sit outside the Alabama Statehouse to protest the laws that target marginalized groups. McDaniel-Ellis joked that they had their own bench.
In 2015, they founded the community center, where they offer lunches to those in need. McDaniels-Ellis even provided a bus pass to a man who needed one while she was being interviewed for this story. In the backroom, there’s a lending library, which they said may have the largest collection of LGBTQ+ literature in Alabama.
Montgomery Pride United was founded in hopes of bringing organizations together: Equal Justice Initiative, American Civil Liberties Union and more. She said there’s a lot of need in the area.
When she spoke in the interview, she continued that hope and wanted to call attention to more groups doing good work across Alabama. She named Magic City Acceptance Center, an LGBTQ+ affirming space in Birmingham. She credited TKO Society, an organization dedicated to TLGB+ Black people in the south.
In the past year, Ellis has been present at protests for the laws targeting LGBT+, especially transgender youth, in Alabama and the Dobbs decision, which made abortion illegal in Alabama. These issues are ones she’s been protesting for decades – and she’s not surprised that she’s still protesting them.
She said that nothing that lawmakers do surprises her anymore.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Who paved the way for you?
First of all, my parents, and I've had a lot of good mentors along the way, and most of them were much older than myself. I've had some awesome teachers over the years; went to a lot of different schools and a lot of different places. But I had a really awesome teacher named Paul Parody, who taught stage and I'll never forget him. He just was somebody that really cared about young people. And, you could feel it from him. But one of my best mentors was a Cherokee and Irish woman named Mellowryexxx. And, I learned the most about activism and caring for the earth and old medicine ways and things like that. I'd have to say she was probably, other than my parents, the most important mentor of my life.
What is your proudest moment?
Having wonderful children. It's one way of teaching somebody closely your values and all of that. Very proud. I have two daughters.
Do you have a lowest moment?
In the past, my lowest moment was when I lost my brother and my closest friend who was ill and my grandfather and a few other friends all in a few months time.
What is your definition of courage?
Not giving up. Staying the course – even when it’s rough.
It seems like you do that when you wait outside the statehouse during the legislative session.
Is there a guiding principle or mantra you tell yourself?
One of the things I always try to do is to clear my pathway. Take care of the old business, so that you can attend to what is most important for the day. And, then, I look for the light. Embrace the light and what is good in a situation.
What light have you found in the past?
Mostly through inspiring people. And, when you're looking for that in folks, it shows up. When you're expecting it, when you're seeking it out, it definitely shows up sometimes in situations, a lot of times in people that you run into – it's inspiring people.
Who did or do you look up to?
I have a great deal of respect for Michelle Browder [Alabama's Women of the Year honoree in 2022]. I want to put some kudos out there for her. I have a great deal of respect for her. And, there's so many people here that we were talking about: Lydia Pickett, who works with [Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless], and JaTaune [Bosby] with the ACLU. She does an awesome job. We have we have great team of workers here [the center], too. Travis Jackson. Mia Raven, at the P.O.W.E.R. [People Organizing for Women’s Empowerment & Rights] House, is part of our team. So, we are surrounded by really awesome people.
How do you overcome adversity?
First of all, you have to allow yourself to be disappointed and to feel those feelings. Allow yourself to have the feelings and then just toughing it up and then go back out there for the day's battle.
What advice would you give your younger self?
There's a a lot of things I would tell my younger self. First of all, to value yourself. I'm still not there, OK, I'll be 70 soon. I think that's the thing that I would most want to tell my younger self: to place more value in and not be so down on who you're not. And, just one physical thing I probably would have done, but to tell myself not to enjoy smoking, just on a practical course. But other than that, I don't think telling somebody something when they're that young really sets in, you almost have to find out things the hard way to really learn them. And, I did have to learn a lot of things the hard way.
What keeps you going?
Pure stubbornness. And, if you ever met my mother, you’d know where I got it from.
2022 Women of the Year: Artist Michelle Browder fights for accurate history in Alabama
Women of the Century: Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Coretta Scott King among 10 influential women on Alabama list
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Activist born during Montgomery Bus Boycott honored by USA TODAY