Despite the markings of a quintessentially millennial campaign — announced on YouTube and staffed at a Saturday rally by a slew of 20-something volunteers — the first three days of Tami Sawyer’s mayoral campaign were steeped in history.

Her announcement video dropped on the 54th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. Friday’s official launch event coincided with International Women’s Day.

Sawyer’s campaign slogan is “We Can’t Wait,” a nod to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Why We Can’t Wait. The site of Saturday’s rally: Clayborn Temple, a gathering site for organizers and activists during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that brought King to Memphis.

The rally’s date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the People’s Grocery lynching, Sawyer said. On March 9, 1892, part-owner Thomas Moss and two other black men were killed because white men were angered by their successful cooperatively owned grocery.

“One hundred and twenty-five years later, our city still struggles to support entrepreneurs of color in a city that is 63 percent black and 70 percent people of color,” she said.

“We call that momentum, but it is not equity,” she said, in a not-so-subtle dig at a talking point of Mayor Jim Strickland.

Even the weather drew parallels to the past, namely April 3, 1968 when King delivered his last speech just a few miles from where Sawyer stood Saturday.

“Just like us, there were storm warnings and they said, ‘No, don’t go. Wait, we’ll reschedule,’” she said. And just like King, she found herself surrounded by “Memphians who believe in the power of change.”

Her progressive agenda mirrors that of the newest and bluest U.S. House of Representatives members, including several black and Latina women who deftly wield social media to connect with constituents and preach progressive politics.

Closer to home, Sawyer follows in the path of black woman politicians such as TaJuan Stout Mitchell, a former Memphis City Council member. On Saturday, Stout Mitchell echoed the praise once heaped on Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, calling Sawyer “unbought, unbossed and… uncompromised.”

From the stage, Sawyer acknowledged her critics, to jeers and protestations from the crowd. Her naysayers insist, “You’ll split the black vote. Young people don’t vote. White people won’t vote for Tami.”

Sawyer, whose day job is as managing director for Teach for America in Memphis, easily won her race for Shelby County Commission in August, beating Republican Sam Goff with more than 80 percent of the votes. She represents District 7, which includes Midtown and Binghampton.

Her first bid for political office was in the 2016 Democratic primary for District 90, when she challenged longtime state representative John DeBerry. He received 2,729 votes to her 2,090 and was unopposed in the general election.

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer listens to speakers during the rally that kicks off her mayoral campaign at Clayborn Temple. Photo by Jonathan Martin.

Sawyer’s platform and activist past

If elected, Sawyer promised a progressive public policy agenda, including more community-oriented policing, an end to cash bail, a more modern public transportation system, a focus on living wage jobs that will not be lost to automation, and creating permanent heating and cooling centers.

She also said she’d explore what it would take to build a city-funded homeless shelter, a longstanding demand of housing justice advocates. Currently the city does not spend any city dollars on housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Sawyer garnered national attention for launching the #TakeEmDown901 movement that led to the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments.

That movement is how Sam Moody, who attended the rally with his son Archer, first heard of Sawyer. He said he doesn’t think Strickland is doing a bad job, but he’s concerned the city’s focus — and his — may be too narrow.

A view of the crowd gathered at Clayborn Temple for Tami Sawyer’s mayoral campaign rally on Saturday, March 9, 2019. Photo by Andrea Morales.

“I recently realized that I only inhabit the Poplar corridor with people who look like me and people who think like me,” Moody said.

“The system is stacked against so many people in this city, and there are so many people in Memphis who live with blinders on.”

Said Jayanni Webster, a local community organizer: “Economic apartheid is real and it is deepening in our communities…when Tami becomes mayor, we all become mayor.”

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer speaks at Clayborn Temple Saturday, March 9, 2019. Photo by Jonathan Martin.

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.