Can Tami Sawyer Win Big in the Black South?

For this youngest mayoral candidate, a success in Memphis would be historic

Tami Sawyer poses in a hallway.
Photo courtesy of Tami Sawyer

AtAt 37, Tami Sawyer is the youngest candidate running for mayor of Memphis — the majority Black, northernmost city of the Mississippi Delta. Memphis was founded in 1819 after negotiations with the Chickasaw Nation. Just before the Civil War, the region was populated with more millionaires than anywhere else in the country.

With nearly a million residents in its metropolitan area, it is the Delta’s commercial hub and the most populous town in Shelby County, Tennessee. If Sawyer wins on October 3, she’ll become the city’s first Black woman mayor, and one of fewer than 10 Black women mayors of major cities nationwide.

BBorn in Evanston, Illinois, Sawyer moved to Memphis when she was 12. She attended private school there at St. Mary’s before leaving home to attend Hampton University and Howard Law School. Last year, she was elected to a four-year term on the county commission. The legislative body’s sole Black woman, she serves district 7, an area that includes parts of Frayser, North Memphis, and Midtown.

Memphis, hometown of Stax and Elvis, the blues and rock and roll and the first Black Baptist congregation in the South, is a formative place for American culture. It is my hometown, but I left for college and haven’t lived there since. It is where I learned about the beauty of Blackness, and how creativity is a practice that could be woven into the everyday rudiments of life. Our artists are still smart, daring, and resilient, and still creating with a singeing, original vitality. I long for its wide green lawns and its warmth, even in the bustling, musical city center. People speak to you on the street when they pass by.

Memphis can also be heartbreakingly suffocating, its air thick with dysfunction and a stubborn refusal to evolve. When Sawyer moved back to Memphis in 2013, she joined the Movement for Black Lives and led #TakeEmDown901, the successful campaign to remove the city’s Confederate monuments.

In 1905, during an intense backlash against the Black business and political might that followed Reconstruction, a statue of slaver and Ku Klux Klan co-founder Nathan Bedford Forrest was dedicated in a park near downtown. The Jefferson Davis monument was erected in 1964; four years later, an assassin shot Martin Luther King, Jr. at a hotel a few blocks away.

Activist pressure and the looming 50th anniversary of King’s death drove Jim Strickland, the current mayor, to skirt a state law that had protected the statues.

MMemphis has been majority Black since 1990, and elected its first Black mayor in 1991. Former school superintendent Willie R. Herenton served from then until 2009. At 79, he’s running against Sawyer and the incumbent; the three candidates are the highest polling in a field of eleven.

Strickland’s a centrist Democrat who touts the city’s “momentum” — growth in jobs, new investment downtown, its balanced budget, and new hires on the police force. Sawyer says the momentum leaves many people behind. Thirty nine percent of Memphis children live in poverty, and the city ranks eighth in the nation for new HIV infections.

Sawyer has crafted a progressive narrative for the city, emphasizing equity, giving voice to how issues of race, gender, and class compound to affect residents’ quality of life. She’s addressed the economic decline Black families have disproportionately suffered since the foreclosure crisis in 2008, and advocates for retooling the economy through job training in industries such as robotics. She also wants to implement a living wage.

NNot everyone is supportive of the young challenger. At a polling center, Sawyer for Mayor campaign signage was defaced with racist comments. Memphis Magazine, a glossy lifestyle, ran a cover image in August of the candidate as a crude, racist caricature. The publication has no people of color on its masthead.

Most recently, several of Sawyer’s questionable old tweets resurfaced. Many could be written off as bad jokes. One described outing a lesbian teacher at her Episcopal, all-girl’s high school, a scary situation in a town where being queer can be isolating. Sawyer issued an apology via Medium. Then she hosted a discussion with advocates from OUT Memphis and the Tennessee Equality Project where she again apologized, explained her own evolution on ideas of gender and gender identity, and recommitted to an active partnership with queer communities. Sawyer remains the only candidate in the race with a specific LGBTQ platform.

The conversations Sawyer has managed to lead — and stir — through the years about racial justice, the overpolicing of Black neighborhoods, transportation insecurity, and now, the difficulties of living queer in the South — have been important. These national problems will need to be addressed on the local level. I spoke with Sawyer about the contentious mayor’s race, the quality of life in the South for queer people, and why Memphis matters.

An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

ZORA: Why are you running for mayor?

Tami Sawyer: I was unhappy with the people who were running and the things they were going to run on. I was unhappy with the fact that we are hitting every social indicator at the bottom of the totem pole nationally. Yet, the incumbent [Jim Strickland] has been talking about momentum. He has silenced activism, surveilled activists, been antagonistic to Black leadership. And he was going to be reelected because a few more buildings have been built downtown.

I’m constantly reading about where Memphis is, in relation to the rest of our country. It paints a picture of this city as a place that is under pressure all around except for the parts of town where the wealthiest live. And these parts of town have built up walls. With the tension that the rest of the city is under from the weight of poverty and disenfranchisement and disinvestment, this entire place is going to crack apart.

I’m not talking about riots and physical violence. I am saying many people continue to be unable to see progress here. I wanted the mayor’s race to include an honest conversation about where Memphis is and where we need to be. The lack of a narrative around the poverty and the lack of investment in education in the current mayor’s race was driving me crazy.

In a TED Talk, Stacy Abrams talked about the power of doing things now, of being who you are called to be. I was in L.A. when I heard her speak. I flew home, and when I landed, I knew I was running for mayor.

What I heard you say is that the progress the incumbent is talking about is not sustainable. Is that right?

Exactly. 55% of the jobs that are listed today as available are going to be eliminated due to automation in the next decade. We are not preparing for that. Instead, we’re putting out lists about how we’re recruiting people for developing medical devices and manufacturing or warehouse jobs. We’re going to hit an economic downturn. It’s going to especially hurt cities like ours that have relied on packaging and logistics and $12.50 shift jobs and temporary workers and delivery drivers.

Citywide, we invest no dollars into K-12 education. Meanwhile, the suburbs around us built a million-dollar school where their kids are graduating, not just ready for college, but also with welding certificates and plumbing certificates. Everyone’s not going to be able to afford college; we can help people make $70,000–$80,000 on their own with a pickup truck and some tools.

In the city, we’re letting our kids float around with their eyes dead, with nothing to do, and not investing in who they are. It’s going to get worse. The mental health trauma, the homelessness, the education, and the transportation that we don’t address. It’s not to create some dystopian story about the city, but this is in Black and White, being written about every day.

Is it important for local officials to engage in national conversations?

I am amazed that often there’s a lack of a narrative about Memphis in the national conversation. Because we are a Petri dish for everything that is happening elsewhere. You name it, Memphis has had it. Yellow fever, lynching, segregation. I wish people really knew the history of this city, the Black wealth that was decimated. I just found out a few weeks ago at a town hall for my district that the people who settled in Oklahoma on Black Wall Street actually were Black Memphians who left the city when People’s Grocery was burned down in 1892. Three Black men were lynched and Ida B. Wells wrote about them. It made wealthy Black families leave Memphis. And then a generation or two later, they were burned out of Oklahoma. There’s a direct connection between Memphis’s wealth and the Black wealth in Oklahoma.

Memphians lack self-esteem and the city often offers up this whole personal responsibility narrative. I’ll never deny that everyone should have a sense of personal responsibility. I’m a true millennial — there’s plenty of times when I spend $20 on Amazon instead of saving it, you know? When we look at the whole story about what’s happening here, what has happened has been strategic, and now it is so systemic people don’t even believe it’s strategic. I think that’s why the entire country struggles to understand us.

People talk about Atlanta and Houston with a lot of pride and respect. Early on, Memphis had many Black educated people, Black schools, Black grocery stores. All of those things were just pretty much wiped out. What was left were decimated communities and people who were either afraid or so traumatized that they just go along to get along.

Then Dr. King was killed here. We have never overcome that completely. During MLK50 [the city held a series of official commemorations for the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination last year] a Latinx supporter got arrested, and is still fighting deportation. They were arresting protesters in the city while thousands of people were coming here to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King.

Somehow it just doesn’t hit the national consciousness. We are not a part of the conversation. And I’m not sure why that is. Even with the police-involved shooting of Brandon Webber this past summer. He wasn’t the first person killed that caused people to take to the streets, and this won’t be the last one because nothing changes around that conversation. Brandon was vilified, so people just went back home. But we have not changed any policies.

Brandon Webber’s death did make national news for a while. With that situation, how do you think the community in Frayser has been under pressure, both before what happened with Brandon and after?

One thing that’s important to know is that Frayser was a middle class, Black, part of town. Memphis as a whole is number one in the country for historical redlining and also now number one in the country for the number of evictions per year, number one for childhood poverty and African American childhood poverty, number two for overall poverty. All of those things have hurt Frayser especially.

There are other pockets in Memphis that have been similarly impacted. The thing about Frayser is that it was built as a middle-class Black enclave, and it is actually physically disconnected from the rest of the city. It sits near a highway, it’s in its own bubble. What you have is generations of people who are proud Frayser residents who remember when the homes were owned by preachers and teachers and sanitation workers and blue-collar workers who saved their money. And they watched all those homes get taken from them by banks with predatory mortgages. Saw families get broken up due to the war on drugs, watched jobs leave the community, and kind of withdrew within themselves.

Frayser includes two of the poorest zip codes in the city. Schools there have been closed and either repurposed for other things or opened by charters. Yet the buildings never got repaired. It went from an area with a very high self-esteem… it meant a lot to have a home in Frayser. Now it exemplifies what poverty and mass incarceration have done to Black families.

It’s like the “Negro problem.” We’re constantly talking about the “Frayser problem — how do we solve this?” But we’re not holding our city accountable for reinvesting in a part of the city that has been disinvested in. Nonprofits and corporations should be reinvesting in Frayser, not just the government.

Frayser still has a very strong identity. “I’m from Frayser” is a phrase, it’s a thing. Some of our most well-known national stars were born and bred in Frayser or North Memphis, which is adjacent to Frayser.

Journalists wrote about folks throwing rocks. Yes, there was rock throwing. But the full story of what happened here is that this was a neighborhood where a few hundred people went outside because a kid everyone knew was dead on the streets.

Is there some kind of lasting community response?

At lot of times in Memphis, we internalize things, or we close ranks. I was elected to represent part of Frayser, but I’m not a Frayser resident. The messaging Brandon Webber’s mother put out was that she wanted to move on, for people to get out of the streets. In St. Louis, Mike Brown’s mother was out there with people asking for answers. Freddie Gray’s family… Eric Garner’s children. In Memphis, a lot of times we don’t want to draw attention as much.

Past tweets of yours, from 2014 and further back surfaced recently. Some were obviously jokes, others were a bit ablest, a couple were homophobic. You have apologized personally and publicly and held an open table forum with LGBTQIA nonprofit leaders. How will you and your campaign work differently with LGBTQIA advocacy groups in the next couple of weeks to continue to address this issue, to heal, and to make sure everyone has a voice?

Let me first share that all of these tweets were very hurtful when they were released, and they still are hurtful. A lot of them are from different times in my life. The majority of them are 10 years old or more. And the tweet that you’re referring to, the one regarding the teacher, was a part of a larger conversation on Twitter. It was one of those hashtag conversations where someone asks a question and you answer it. It was about being Black at a prep school. I was asked about my memories of gender identity at my institution. I shared how I recall my entire class being really horrible to this one particular teacher. And I used language such as “outed” and #meangirls not to be flippant or because I thought it was funny, but because I was reflecting on the way we really pushed her to disclose to us. We did not out her to the school’s administration.

She was a young teacher, and we were horrible 15-year-olds. She wasn’t the hyperfeminine ideal that we were used to seeing at an all-girls private school. We were conditioned to reject anything out of the ordinary, and as a Black girl in the school being rejected, I joined groups who rejected other people.

Still, the way it came out without context is really hard.

Yes, it is really hard. I’m not defending it. The thing we have done and will continue to do is have these conversations and prioritize, you know, showing up. Pride is next week. We have Pride in the fall, because it’s too hot in the summer for a parade. I’m going to show up to the things that I’ve been invited to. And I’ll work really hard to show this community that same person they’ve grown to trust and welcome into their spaces.

This is a community that, after the election, win or lose, I still want to be a friend to. Even before this happened, my platform specifically addressed the LGBTQ community. I talk about the fact that we have the highest HIV new infection rate in the state and one of the highest in the country. And that we need to educate on access to PrEP and PEP. We currently have an LGBTQ liaison to the mayor’s office, but she’s a straight White woman. We should add a trans liaison. I will continue to push for inclusive, specific policies for the queer community even if I am not elected mayor.

In a roundtable, you talked about how your work in activism, and specifically with the Movement for Black Lives made you more educated about gender and gender identity. Could you talk about that with me?

Before I moved back home in 2013, I didn’t know much about gender identity and gender expression. I didn’t know pronouns and things like that. I had a very limited worldview on the lives of LGBTQ people. It was my work with Teach for America as a diversity trainer as well as my work in the Movement for Black Lives, which was founded by three queer Black women. I remember them centering that. I got involved in conversations about queerness in a level of depth I hadn’t before.

With my work at Teach for America, I was able to travel and train and listen to the experiences of people who were different from me. I learned how what we were doing is important to the Latinx community, to Asian Americans, to all people of color. I started to understand the intersections of race, gender identity, and class. These are not conversations, language, vocabulary that I had prior to 2014.

Also, my friendship circle today looks nothing like my friendship circle five years ago or 10 years ago. While people who were my friends then are still my friends, my core friend group is people who I probably would have never met if I hadn’t started marching on the pavement five years ago. These are people who taught me how to be a better friend, and who accepted my gaffes. We learned together. My growth has come from other people. And also, from working in a movement that forced us to realize that Blackness is not hypermasculine, nor hyperfeminine, nor solely straight.

I was at first a bit incredulous about the uproar because I know how homophobic church-adjacent spaces in Memphis can be. And that much of the town is church-adjacent. I thought for a bit, but the whole city is homophobic, you know?

It’s interesting you say that. I’ve had straight Black people call me and say, “girl don’t worry about that.” And I’ve had to stop them and tell them, “No, it’s not okay. I am worried about it.”

You talked about the high rate of new HIV infections, and I’ve been hearing about the super high rate of homelessness among LGBTQ teenagers in Memphis. I’ve also been thinking about the assault on reproductive rights in many parts of the country.

Tennessee’s legislature has been discussing fetal heartbeat bills and Roe v. Wade trigger bills. Which is to me connected to the state’s lack of comprehensive sex education and the stigma we have around issues of sex and sexuality. What is your vision for what a city can be and do to protect the quality of life of its citizens who may be queer or gender-nonconforming?

One of the things I’m most disappointed by in the current administration is the lack of advocacy for the city to Nashville [the state capital]. And the fact that we are number one in so many of the areas that you named. Those issues intersect and are shaped by the poverty that Memphis experiences as well.

We currently have a mayor who plays it very safe right now with Nashville. The administration could write letters, the city council could go for visits to the capitol. Especially in the South, urban areas tend to be more progressive than the states they are part of. In Chicago, [newly elected mayor] Lori Lightfoot has said she will not give access to city databases to ICE.

For me, if elected mayor, I’d advocate from day one. Nashville needs to know Memphis is going to fight against these harmful bills. We need bills to get funding to our communities so we can get our HIV rate down.

Right now, there are billboards all over the city that tell people if you get caught with a gun and you’re a felon, you’re going to get maximum gun crime time. It has pictures of Black youth with slang words. It criminalizes young Black people. It makes people think we’re less safe than we are. What if we used that same funding to educate children and adults on access to PEP and PrEP? Most people don’t even know what it is or why they would need it until it’s too late.

We can’t put comprehensive sex ed in the schools because of the state, but the city can play a role in navigating that by making it a health issue. Because it is a health issue.

I want to be an advocate who tries to change the tide of what they’re doing in Nashville, but also making sure we’re reaching the people and educating them here.

What makes you feel hopeful?

I’m extremely hopeful and excited about the number of people who are seeing politics as a way to make change. In the races for city council, many people are running for the first time. Many people are talking about poverty and crime through the lens of the disinvestment in our kids. They are talking about transportation access, food access, and environmental justice. That gives me so much excitement.

Recently, someone running for city council called me and said, “I’m just not going to turn in my ballot. This is hard. Everywhere I turn I’m being counted out.” And I said, “You said you wanted to make change, right?

We want to quit every day. I get called fat every day, I get called a sellout. I am literally verbally attacked somehow every day. But I believe in my message, and I believe if we’re successful we can bring tremendous change. I told the candidate, “If you believe in yourself, you’ve got to go through this fire win or lose.” It’s tough, but I’m excited that there’s so many of us running who can talk to each other, who can lift each other up. People are waking up to the possibility that we can reclaim our city.

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