While the Tennessee legislature worked to thwart new voters this session by passing a law to penalize voter registration groups with criminal charges and fines for errors, the people of Memphis spoke up about ways to make their vote more powerful. Well, at least 2,200 of them.

That’s how many weighed in on UpTheVote901’s People’s Convention survey, and those results will provide the foundation for the convention’s June 8 public event starting at 11 a.m. at Paradise Entertainment Center. About 2,500 are expected to attend.

While voter registration groups reel from the new state law, and the NAACP of Tennessee and others pursue a federal lawsuit to block it, UpTheVote901’s the Rev. Earle J. Fisher said the convention is a creative way to engage voters and potential ones, too.

“What this does show is we refuse to flinch at such heinous legislation meant to impact communities of color disproportionately,” Fisher said.

The People’s Convention survey results provide clarity on key issues, and UpTheVote901 is clear Memphians want to see city budget priorities, crime, improved education and increased wages addressed by candidates in the Oct. 3 Municipal Election. The organization’s purpose is to increase voter turnout and “give more political power, information, and representation to more people,” according to its web site.

“What this process has done is expose the anxiety people have when you’re giving more power to more people.”

Rev. Earle J. Fisher

The last legislative session wasn’t the catalyst for this event, however, the 2016 presidential election was, Fisher said.

“What this process has done is expose the anxiety people have when you’re giving more power to more people,” Fisher said. “So the political infrastructure in Memphis is one where people have learned about manipulating the inequitable structure instead of making the structure more equitable itself.”

The 32-question survey queried everything from whether respondents believe companies getting tax breaks should be required to pay a living wage and if harsher jail sentences make communities safer to gauging their beliefs about using restorative justice practices in schools (where discipline problems are addressed through dialogue and remediation rather than suspensions) and paying for healthcare.

At the People’s Convention, attendees will help create a slate of consensus candidates and issues that need to be addressed — a People’s Agenda. UpTheVote901 recently removed a stipulation requiring candidates to sign a pledge agreeing to drop out of their race for office if not selected as a consensus candidate.

So far, 13 candidates have agreed to attend the People’s Convention, said Fisher, noting their names won’t be released until next week. Mayoral candidate Lemichael Wilson has agreed to attend, after concerns about the pledge stipulation were resolved, and former Mayor Willie Herenton said he won’t. Mayor Jim Strickland’s campaign did not return calls to confirm his attendance but told The Commercial Appeal the real people’s convention is Election Day. His campaign accused UpTheVote901 of bias in favor of Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, a Fisher friend and ally.

Lemichael Wilson’s campaign balked at the requirement that candidates pledge to drop out of the fall city election if they aren’t slated by the People’s Convention.

Sawyer has not indicated yet whether she will attend.

Wilson initially declined to attend because he said the pledge threatened the democratic process by putting voters’ choices in the hands of a private group. His campaign wrote: “We still believe that ALL voters (including those outside The People’s Convention) should have full access to ALL candidates until our legally designated Election Day comes on Oct. 3.”

Driven by survey results and monthslong planning, Fisher said UpTheVote901 strategy meetings have always been open to all in the spirit of transparency and tapping the agency of Memphians seeking a say in the city’s future. In an interview with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, Fisher was adamant he won’t favor Sawyer or any other candidate but will pursue a candidate and agenda that reflect progressive policies.

AFSCME Local 1733 has pledged to support the People’s Agenda, as has Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., Alpha Delta Lambda Chapter, the local AFL-CIO chapter, SisterReach and The Equity Alliance, out of Nashville, Fisher said.

A “primary” where there is none

Because the fall election is non-partisan, the People’s Convention serves as a mock primary to identify viable progressive candidates for mayor and city council, according to Fisher. Also on the ballot are municipal judge seats and the City Court Clerk.

The hope is, that having consensus candidates will thwart vote-splitting, where a winning candidate slips into office with nothing close to a majority of the vote. For example, Strickland was elected in 2015 with 41 percent of votes, in an election with a 28 percent turnout. Having candidates on hand to state their positions will help convention-goers decide whom to support.

“The beauty of this is this is the first time in recent history people are signing up to vote as a block, which is something I’ve never done before,” Fisher said. “We have cultivated and developed a democratically structured agenda that speaks to the issues people are passionate about.”

This year’s convention evokes the 1991 People’s Convention that ushered Memphis’ first elected black mayor, Herenton, into office. Dubbed “racially divisive,” that convention aimed to galvanize black voters in what was even then a majority-black city. The effort served to successfully unseat Mayor Dick Hackett.

The People’s Convention convened by UpTheVote901 is less focused on race and more attuned to progressive policies, said Fisher, noting that other cities and states, like Philadelphia and Illinois, have held similar slating events. The demographics of survey responses from whites and blacks bears this out, though he has indicated the survey shows more youth viewpoints are necessary.

“This moment in 2019 demands something more comprehensive,” Fisher said.

Why voting and voter education matters

Twenty-five states have moved to restrict voting since 2010, according to The Brennan Center for Justice. The pace of voter suppression efforts has increased since 2013, when the Supreme Court decided to set aside a Voting Rights Act provision requiring states and counties with a history of discrimination to get approval before making changes to elections, called “preclearance.”

“For us, it has always been about a comprehensive approach to engaging and empowering people,” said Fisher about the new state law that squarely puts Tennessee in the center of a national trend to keep marginalized communities, like African-Americans, from the polls.

Moreover, the convention is a next-step for progressives who have been demanding change for a while; the Hernando DeSoto bridge takeover in 2016 is a case in point. About 1,000 Memphians swarmed the bridge between Tennessee and Arkansas to protest police killings of two black men in less than 24 hours, Alton Sterling on July 5 in Louisiana and Philando Castile on July 6 in Minnesota.

“When the bridge demonstration happened, people were, like, ‘What do ya’ll want?’ This is part of what’s next,” Fisher said. “This is definitely connected to the spirit of activism — not just to agitate but to educate and organize.”

Where do we go from here?

Register in advance (below) for this free event.

Political candidates who have questions about the integrity of the consensus-building process should email upthevote901@gmail.com.


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.