Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer has already changed the literal landscape of Memphis, Tennessee. Changing the city’s political culture is proving to be much harder.
In 2017, she spearheaded the Take Em Down 901 campaign which successfully led to the removal of local statues that honored Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Even though Memphis is majority Black, majority Democrat, the power is white and Republican — old Southern money. Names whose family names were [listed as supporters] on the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis when they came down,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer has a long history of activism in Shelby County. Her family moved to Memphis from Evanston, Illinois, when she was 12. Her father took a job with the National Civil Rights Museum based at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in 1968.
She grew up in a house full of books and a commitment to preserving stories of Black history. But while Sawyer said she felt very connected to the stories of the 60s and 70s, she did not really understand what was happening in the 90s and 2000s until the death of Trayvon Martin.
She organized her first protest at the Civil Rights Museum, which she knew by that point like the back of her hand. And she’s organized protests all over the city. But when Sawyer found that city officials, including the mayor, barred protestors from entering city hall she resolved to find another way into the building.
“I said, ‘Okay, you don’t want me in there? I’m gonna be in there. You’re gonna have to call me colleague one day.’”
As a county commissioner, Sawyer found herself leading in a city that is often at odds with politicians at the state level.
“We call ourselves ‘Memphis, Memphis’ because we literally are the city that historically and currently are just kind of left to our own devices. But there’s so many resources. We’re on the bluff, we’ve got the Grizzlies, we’ve got great property value. It’s beautiful.”
“We’ve got all these things that the state would love to have without the people and the problems.”
Sawyer drafted the county’s resolution on masking during the Covid-19 pandemic. She has also been an outspoken voice on issues like education funding, police brutality and voting rights – she was one of many politicians arrested during a 2021 voting rights protest in Washington DC. In return, she received a steady stream of harassment and death threats.
“I ended up having to have security and it wasn’t the first time. I was on anxiety medicine. I was emotionally spent. I remember breaking down at my parents’ house and my dad was like, you gotta find a better way,” Sawyer said.
“You can continue to fight, but you’ve got to find a better way.”
A better way for Sawyer may be returning to the energy that started her career in public service. In the summer of 2020, when millions of Americans took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and a long history of systemic police brutality, Sawyer’s activist instincts re-emerged.
“I was probably on the streets in the summer of 2020 every night for 11 days with my fellow Memphians and activists, because I come from an activist tradition. That’s how I started.”
Now she has come full circle.
In 2019, she made a run for mayor of Memphis but lost to the incumbent. That may have been her last campaign as a candidate. Sawyer announced that she will not seek reelection and will instead pursue a doctorate degree.
“I could argue with 12 people for another four years about a budget that continues to resist change or I could go figure out how to be the one who’s dropping progressive policy on desks in the name of Southern economic equity and racial equity,” Sawyer said.
Her long term ambition is to establish a Southern Race Economic Policy Center – ideally housed at the same National Civil Rights Museum that brought her family Memphis. But wherever her career takes her at this point, she’s not letting go of her activist roots.
“This country was built on activism. Black people have had to use activism to free themselves, to escape racial violence and lynching. Without activism, we aren’t where we are today. And then that’s just talking about Black people. White people have had to use activism. Everyone. The only reason we are not a plantation agricultural, wealthy white male landowner country is because of activism. The only reason we’re not a state of England is because of activism.”