Tami Sawyer, the newly elected Shelby County Commissioner who rode a wave of sweat, activism and coalition-building into elected office will run for Memphis mayor.
“The time has come for our city to prioritize the needs of people over projects, and to deliver real solutions that will make progress attainable and enhance quality of life for all,” Sawyer announced Thursday morning.
“As we approach the next four years, Memphians cannot stand by as our most vulnerable citizens continue to grapple with the negative effects of poor housing, environmental, learning and employment conditions that are within our power to help alleviate and resolve,” according to Sawyer.
The filing deadline for the Oct. 3 election is July 18. So far, likely contenders are Mike Williams, who ran in 2015, Lemichael Wilson, a relative unknown, and Memphis’ first black mayor, Willie Herenton. Mayor Jim Strickland has announced his intention to seek a second term.
Sawyer’s announcement is notable as it represents the growing appeal of progressive politics in Memphis and an embrace of black women in elected offices. Her win for the commissioner’s seat is not without context as more than 20 black women were elected to Congress in the fall 2018 midterms in what is the largest women’s congressional class in history. In Shelby County, eight black women won races for state or county offices in August, possible with grassroots outreach, State Rep. London Lamar explained on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes.” In February, two black women made the runoff for Chicago mayor, which would be a first for that Great Migration city.
“We are in the moment where the electorate, as well as the women themselves, are seeing they have some amazing contributions to the body politic and being able to engage in a way that has an impact on communities in our larger cities and in many cases, regions,” Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, which works to expand black women in elected leadership positions nationally.
“It will be interesting to see how the debate on what’s the best leadership for Memphis will unfold with a more diverse voice at the table,” Peeler-Allen said.
Sawyer attended St. Mary’s Episcopal School and the University of Memphis. She moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a law degree and worked for the U.S. Navy as a diversity analyst. After a decade in the nation’s capital, she came home and found the activist landscape in need of, well, activation.
She told The Crisis magazine in December she was expecting a bigger reaction in 2014 when a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer killed Mike Brown, 18, especially since so many people were still reeling from Trayvon Martin’s 2012 killing in Sanford, Florida.
“In Memphis, the activist spirit wasn’t as heavy,’ she recalled after the national reaction to Brown’s death that birthed the Black Lives Matter movement. “When they failed to indict [Officer] Darren Wilson, all of the cities were decrying that fact, nothing as happening at home.”
She began organizing on social media and realized many Memphians responded well to speaking truth to power and organizing around common causes. While working her day job at Teach for America, she organized a multiracial coalition to advocate for the removal of Confederate statues in city parks.
While local black elders are quick to mention they’ve tried this in the past, and Mayor Jim Strickland first said it couldn’t happen then insisted removal must happen legally, her protests, messaging and persistence turned up the heat. The result: Sawyer created the conditions for creative thinking around state law that thwarted Memphis’ ability to decide what to do with the ahistorical statues in its own backyard.
Since taking county office in August, Sawyer has taken her activist agenda into the chamber serving as chairperson of the law enforcement, fire, corrections and courts committee, and vice chairperson of the education and community service committees.
Notably, as head of the law enforcement committee, she is an automatic member of the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission, a secretive, nonprofit entity that wields power and influence over policing in the area. She has said the organization should open its records and said she has personally requested to see donor lists.
“The work of criminal justice reform requires transparency at the highest levels, and if the crime commission truly exists for the benefit of the community, then there should be no opposition to these requests,” Sawyer said in response to a lawsuit filed by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism Founder Wendi C. Thomas and The Marshall Project to force open the crime commission’s records.
Her election as commissioner is the second time Sawyer has run for office. Previously, she ran and lost a race for State Representative of the 90th District of Tennessee in 2016.
Sawyer will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Friday, March 8 (International Women’s Day) at Makeda’s Cookies in downtown Memphis. And she’ll appear at the Memphis Can’t Wait rally at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 9 at Clayborn Temple to share her vision for Memphis.
Sawyer has previously written for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, which covers the intersection of poverty, power and policy.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.