Inside the cafeteria at Douglass High School in North Memphis where U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren appeared for her first stop on the Southern leg of her 50-state presidential campaign, she did not shy away from acknowledging Memphis’ economic circumstance as one of the country’s poorest metro areas.
“It sounded like a lot of people in this room understand the importance of making this economy work not just for those people at the top but making it work for everyone,” the Massachusetts Democrat told a crowd of more than 400 onlookers as she addressed everything from economic inequity, educational investment and campaign finance reform.
“It’s a campaign that’s not about doing a bunch of big fundraisers,” said Warren, in a primary race against 16 Democrats who have declared so far, including Senators Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, plus Julian Castro, former housing secretary, and Andrew Yang, a tech executive. “It’s a campaign that’s not about holding meetings behind closed doors.”
In a school sitting in heart of Shelby County’s District 7, County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, a candidate for Memphis mayor, moderated audience questions as Warren called for “a big systemic change in the country.”
Warren shared experiences from her past and the hardships her family faced after the father’s sudden death: “The squeeze on working people is real, and they feel it every single day.”
“When my mother went to Sears, a minimum wage job in America would support a family of three,” she said. “You’re talking the mortgage, paying the utilities and still put food on the table. Today a minimum wage job in America will not keep a mother and baby out of poverty.”
Despite Tennessee’s long-time status as a Republican-leaning state, Memphis historically votes Democrat. The city is not a frequent stop for national political campaigns.
“It’s surreal for her to come to Douglass High, which is a small school in Memphis, so something like this doesn’t happen too often,” said Vontavious Hurd, 16, a Douglass High School junior. “I came out today because I need to know more about politics. I’m interested in policy around technology and foreign policy, and how she would treat the dreamers with visa laws.”
Warren spoke directly to the American economy’s limits along racial lines.
“For African-Americans, who have felt the sting of discrimination, generation after generation, it has mounted,” Warren said. “Just consider one fact: For every $100 a white family has, an African-American family has $5, and that is the America we have built. It is an America that works great for those at the top and doesn’t work for anyone else. And that’s why I am in this race.”
Warren’s Southern swing includes a televised CNN town hall meeting Monday in Jackson, Mississippi, and a Tuesday campaign stop in Birmingham, Alabama.
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.