Memphis Mayoral Candidate Tami Sawyer Says Black Women Can Reclaim the South

Shelby County Commissioner (District 7) Tami Sawyer in downtown Memphis on May 16, 2019.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)

Tami Sawyer’s run for mayor of Memphis, Tn. almost didn’t happen. The issue? Self-doubt.

“Am I capable of running this city?” she wondered.

“No one will vote for me,” she often told herself.

“I can’t win,” were words that often swirled around in her mind.

She took a step back and reminded herself of her own greatness, the potential to do great things for her hometown. She reminded herself that in 2018, she won the Shelby County commissioner’s seat (District 7) with more than 80 percent of the vote. Then, other black women came to mind: newly elected Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who many people strongly believe lost her race purely because of racism.

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When I caught up with the Howard Law School graduate back in May at The Office @Uptown, a black-owned eatery in downtown Memphis, Sawyer, 37, reflected on what it means to be a bold, uncompromising black woman who dares to run for public office. If she wins the general election in October, she’ll be the first woman to win the city’s top political seat; nope, no woman has ever been mayor of Memphis. The incumbent, Mayor Jim Strickland, is favored to win reelection, but, if 2018 has shown us anything, it’s this: When a black female candidate runs a grassroots campaign that speaks to the people, an upset can happen. And that is what Sawyer hopes to do in her 2019 campaign. “If Ayanna Pressley can do it, so can I,” is Sawyer’s thinking.

In 2016, Sawyer led the successful “#TakeEmDown901” campaign to remove Confederate statues from Memphis parks; they were removed in 2017. In response, Sawyer immediately received death threats that only stopped in early May of this year.

Many of racist messages threatened her against running for mayor.

This is part of the job as a bold, unshakable black woman running for mayor of Memphis. But what really keeps her believing in her candidacy is the power of black Memphis and the Latinx community, who she says wants an activist in the mayor’s office who will ensure that the city, which is celebrating its 200th birthday this summer, will not gentrify them out of their homes and their way of life.

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Sawyer talked to The Root about how—without even speaking to her—Stacey Abrams convinced her to run, stereotypes about the South she wishes people would let go of, and how black women will be the ones to reclaim the South for the Democratic Party.

The Root: What type of stereotypes do people have about Tennessee and about the South—especially as it pertains to black people?

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Tami Sawyer: That’s a great question, especially with what happened in Alabama and Georgia [with the anti-abortion bills], people are quick to be like, “I’m never moving South,” or “Boycott Georgia, boycott Alabama.” I think, because, historically, the South has been categorized as Jim Crow, slavery, but oppression of black people exists in all 50 states. I mean, Oregon was created to not allow black people in. So, I’m really protective of when people are like, “Throw the whole state away,” because that’s just silly. So many of us that live here are working here, committed to fighting for change. I mean, even though we know that right now, a Democrat or a black woman could not win governor, could not win Senate, we’re still trying to push at every level. It’s one of the reasons I’m running for mayor.

I’m running for mayor because we didn’t have any representation of millennials, of women at all. Before I announced, the main contenders were both over 60. One white, one black. So, I was looking across the country and I’m like, in the era of Stacey Abrams, in the era of what we were calling the Pink Wave here in Shelby County, in the era of Kamala, we’re really not going to have a black woman [running for mayor] in a city that’s 51 percent women and 70 percent people of color?

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And so, when people talk about Tennessee or the South, I just think that, yes, we have our issues. But I was in New York at the beginning of the year and there were no lights or heat in the prisons in Brooklyn. So, I’m not saying throw New York away or boycott New York.

TR: You lead a campaign called #TakeEmDown901 to remove two Confederate statues here in Memphis. Tell me how that got started.

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TS: ‘Take ‘em Down’ came around a time when there was just so much frustration. These lack of indictments [against cops who were killing black people], there was in-fighting in the Movement for Black Lives, nationally and locally, and I felt like we just needed a win. I was at a conscious leadership retreat at my job in May of 2017 and I was asked, “What is one small thing you think you can do?” I was talking about how I felt things were falling off the rails with a movement that had barely gotten on its feet. I was talking about the apathy in Memphis and I said, “We’ve got Confederate statues in Memphis. Can we get these statues down? We gotta get these statues down.” So I went and made a Facebook post that said, “Hey, anybody wanna talk about the statues?” We ended up with 400 people in an elementary school gym talking about it.

It was a moment that reinvested me in the belief that we could build a broad and diverse coalition for equality. It was a moment where I was able to organize around something I felt passionate about locally. A lot of times people were like, “That BLM stuff. That’s national. That’s not happening here in Memphis., And it was. I constantly use in my activism the statues as a visual and talking point. So, when the officers who killed Tamir Rice were indicted, I held a prayer and healing circle at the statue to force the media to juxtapose what we were there to talk about. The death of black bodies. That the largest statue in Memphis was that of a violent slave owner who killed 600 black soldiers for daring to join the Union Army.

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TR: Was there a point in your life when you thought, “I need to wait; I’m not good enough to run for mayor?”

TS: I almost didn’t run for mayor. It was actually a crisis of identity. Just, am I ... is this imposter syndrome? Am I actually capable of doing this? Listening to the voices: “I’m too young.” “I’m too woke.” “I’m too radical.” “No one’s gonna vote for me.”

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I ran for County. And so, won that, won with 81 percent of the vote, hard-fought race, and people started coming to me—now’s the time to run for mayor. I was like, “I don’t want to leave people hanging. I don’t want people thinking I’m doing it to climb ladders.” No, no one’s going to think that. They’re just going to be excited that someone who speaks to what the reality of this city is, is running.

So, I was named to that list. And I still...I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Me? All the people across the country, what I’m doing in Memphis really reached the radar?” And even when I got to the event and I was walking around, it was really only when I saw my picture on the screen and I said, “Oh, I’m really here.” And it was while I was there, Stacy Abrams did her TED Talk.

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I was in L.A. and she was in, I think, San Francisco doing her TED Talk, and I was headed back home to Memphis and I listened to it on the plane. And that’s when I landed, I texted the people who are in my team and I said, “Let’s do it. We’re doing it.”

Her TED Talk had me make my final decision.

TR: What was it about the TED Talk that stuck with you?

TS: It was the overall sense of it: that we can’t afford to discount our ability to lead. We can’t afford to wait for somebody else. You know, my favorite quote, I use it all the time, it’s Obama’s “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” And that’s my daily motivation: that if I don’t run, it’s four years of the same status quo, investment in downtown, no investment in our communities. If I do run, win or lose, we pushed the needle on what people are forced to have conversations about and do with our budget and in our community.

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TR: Stacey Abrams’ thing was, “I’m going to grow the electorate.” There are more people of color, the state is going to be majority people of color over the next 10 years or something like that. And so, she was leaning into those communities. You know, and she almost did the unthinkable that people thought could not happen. Likewise, Memphis’ demographics should be in your favor.

TS: The demographic should be in my favor. On paper, right, when we break down the electorate, we need about 60,000 votes—55- to 60,000 votes. I’ve registered voters who lean strong Democrat. Forty-five thousand are black women. So, assuming every black woman is like, “I’m voting for my sister,” we would win by a landslide. Another, I think 15 are white women. That’s 60,000 votes right there.

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The race is ours to lose. Are we speaking to women, actually? Are women feeling an investment in our race? Are they staying in touch with our race? Those are all important things that we’re considering, but Memphis has a history of vote splitting.

TR: What’s that?

TS: Where there’s one white candidate, no other white people will get in the race, and there’s like five or six black candidates. Kind of like what happened to Tishaura Jones in St. Louis.

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But, if one of the brothers did not run against her, she would have won. Eight hundred and eighty-eight votes is what she lost by. If just one of them had not run. I’m always trying to figure out how black people across genders could come together and not be divided in that way, but there is a gender split as well. Households might go a different way, masculine leadership, pastors might be in the pulpit, saying, “We’re voting for the men.”

TR: How important is it to have you, as a black woman with your politics, leading this city? Who else do you hope to uplift?

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TS: I think that one thing about last year’s Blue or Pink Wave is that allowed people who’ve been excited to get into more political activism. I’ve been on the ground in Memphis. I lived in D.C. for about a decade, I returned home in 2013 and I’ve been on the ground since I came home, working in grassroots activism, in organizing and them moving into more political center organizing. And so, I find Stacey Abrams to be one of the most fascinating people that’s ever risen to the forefront of political conversations.

I was inspired by her to say, “Now is the time.” I think she’s consistently putting out the message that women don’t need to wait. Black women don’t need to wait, right? We don’t need approval or permission to lead communities that are ours. You know, as we’re talking about families and we’re talking about kids, so we are uniquely talking about challenges to black and brown women here in Memphis.

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And so, for them to see someone who’s in that seat, but one, aware of the challenges they’re facing, and two, talking directly about how to impact those challenges, and alleviate the financial stresses. You know, again, the fact that our transit needs $25 million and we’ve just never made it a priority, except for remodeling the trolley system downtown. Right? Again, those two blocks.

And so, what I have seen... I was out a few weeks ago, and a young lady came up to me and she said, “I’m 26 years old and I’ve never voted and I’m voting for the first time because you’re running, because you’ve inspired me to be active and to care more. I didn’t think anybody cared about us. So politics didn’t matter to me.”

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That’s what keeps me motivated. That’s what keeps me going, is when people have an opportunity to see someone care about them and talk about them.

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About the author

Terrell Jermaine Starr

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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