The activist landscape wasn’t quite as, well, active when Tami Sawyer moved back home to Memphis, Tenn., in 2013 after a 10-year stint in Washington, D.C. Like so many who nursed psychic wounds of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 killing, Sawyer was expecting a bigger reaction from her hometown in 2014 when Mike Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In Memphis, the activist spirit wasn’t as heavy,” she recalls. “When they failed to indict Darren Wilson [for the death of Mike Brown], all of the cities were decrying that fact, nothing was happening at home.”
So Sawyer held a “die-in” on the plaza of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In a city that didn’t have a strong activist response to Trayvon Martin’s killing two years before, she expected about 50 people. But 80 came out. Organizing through social media, she has been successful in doing what local leaders have long been unable to do: bring the races and other marginalized voices, such as Memphis’ LGBTQ community, together around a common cause.
“That was a major photographic moment for the city,” says Sawyer, recognizing the power of imagery at the die-in. “There was a White mom holding her Black son’s hand, and he was holding a sign saying, ‘Don’t shoot me.’ Then a week later, we protested on Beale Street.”
You could say Sawyer grew up with a heart for social justice. Her father was the CFO of the National Civil Rights Museum, and she wrote her senior thesis at St. Mary’s Episcopal School on the paradox of honoring the slave-trading Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a KKK Grand Wizard whom Memphis honored with a statue in a public park.
After graduating from the University of Memphis with a political science degree, she spent a year and a half at Howard University School of Law, but her heart wasn’t in it. Sawyer worked as a diversity analyst at the U.S. Navy and spent her downtime baking cupcakes — she was even featured on the Food Network. She also did the kind of volunteering and activism expected of her Black bourgeois, private-schooled upbringing: She mentored D.C. students and participated in protests, which were plenty and often in D.C.
In Memphis, Sawyer serves as managing director for diversity and community partnerships at Teach for America. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down in 2014 by a Cleveland police officer, Sawyer held a healing circle at the Forrest statue. She decided then, “We’re going to get this guy down.”
As founder of #TakeEmDown901, Sawyer would soon lead an intersectional movement to demand removal of Confederate statues from Memphis public parks.
She would succeed.
As Tennessee’s blackest big city, Memphis is a place where African Americans run things that Whites control, they say around these parts. The city markets itself as a distribution center, a brand only successful by luring jobs that routinely fail to pay a living wage, according to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
Memphis’ public transportation system can’t efficiently get people to work and back, and like many urban areas, policing feels more like occupation and less about protection. An ACLU of Tennessee lawsuit against the City of Memphis revealed that police in 2016 and 2017 collected data on Black Lives Matter activists by “friending” them on social media. This occurred in spite of a 1978 consent decree barring such surveillance and which city officials maintain is out of step with modern policing needs. The spying is linked to public reaction to the 2015 shooting death of unarmed 19-year-old Darrius Stewart by a White Memphis police officer who was subsequently cleared and similar shootings nationwide.
In addition, the juvenile court in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, petitioned the federal government in 2017 to lift its oversight after agreeing to overhaul practices that included punishing Black children more harshly than White children who committed the same offense.
“Tami Sawyer and people like her are signaling it’s beyond time for our voices to be heard, our concerns to be addressed,” says Kristal High Taylor, founder of nFluence, an e-commerce, media and technology company focused on increasing civic engagement and democratic participation. “Though the vestiges of White supremacy attempt to keep her advocacy and activism under the radar, Sawyer is becoming a firebrand representative of a new way of political leadership.”
The situation in Shelby County “sounds like the opening to a dystopian novel,” according to Sawyer.
“When I came back home and found myself in the midst of this social justice fight against inequity, those statues were the biggest symbols I could point to,” says Sawyer. “If you talk about education and equity, some people don’t get it. Point to those statues, and they get it.”
When Unite the Right marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, and Heather Heyer was run down and killed by a White supremacist, Memphis activists stood in solidarity. Sawyer and five other activists met up at the Forrest statue to consider what could be done in their city. One of the activists touched the horse tail on the Forrest statue, and the group was suddenly surrounded by 18 police cars.
That’s in contrast to how the City of Memphis welcomed the Sons of the Confederacy to Memphis that summer, says Sawyer.
“Police provided tactical support, swept their hotel and escorted them all over the city,” says Sawyer of the White supremacy group. “They were able to hang a wreath from the statue.”
Under unrelenting public pressure, Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis, who is White, came around to considering the issue of removing Confederate monuments from public parks, but had to petition the state of Tennessee. The Legislature recently enacted a law making the state historical commission the only body that could decide the matter — to preserve history.
In addition to protesting, Sawyer and fellow activists livestreamed City Council sessions and even traveled to a historical commission meeting in a last-ditch appeal by the mayor. A petition to remove the statue eventually topped 5,000 signatures. Notably, on Aug. 20, 2017, about a week after events in Charlottesville, more than 400 residents showed up in sweltering heat to protest the Forrest statue. Six activists were arrested. Charges were eventually dropped.
When the monuments — including the Jefferson Davis Memorial in downtown Memphis — came down the night of Dec. 20, 2017, neither Memphis’ mayor nor several Black male leaders gave Sawyer credit for leading the charge to remove the statues. Strickland maintained that he had always been committed to removing the statues in a lawful way.
Erased from discourse was how and why the issue was on the table — and who put it there.
Sawyer’s ally, Pastor Earle Fisher, found the response similar to the minimized efforts of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and other women during the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, he affectionately calls her “Tami Lou Hamer.”
“Prophetic Black women have always been out front,” says Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis.
In August, Sawyer, a member of the NAACP Memphis branch, was elected as a Shelby County commissioner.
She is part of a national wave of women running for public office as a corrective force against patriarchy, racism and xenophobia. Her power and brand have not yet been fully recognized nationally: Attention tends to flow to the population centers like Boston, where Ayanna Pressley unseated a 10-term congressman and made history as the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts or in New York where folks are still pondering the meaning of Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s who, at 29, became the youngest woman elected to Congress. Stacey Abrams made New South history simply for her run to become Georgia’s first Black governor, the fourth African American governor in U.S. history and the first female Black governor — ever.
Black people are the majority in Shelby County but the economic minority. Sawyer’s goal is to center marginalized voices in the Memphis area. She ran for the board of commissioners to take a stand against the status quo.
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners oversees the county budget, which covers everything from hospitals and schools to courts and jails. Sawyer says Shelby County needs to do a better job on things like road upkeep, transportation, health care access, and in addressing issues like underfunded and segregated schools and mass incarceration.
Sawyer is chair of the Law Enforcement, Fire, Corrections, and Courts Committee, and vice chair of committees on Education, Committee 15: Equal Opportunity/MWBE/LOSB, and Community Service. She says she wants to fund education in a way that prepares students to work in the 21st century and pay for health care in a manner that makes sure the needs of Blacks, women and LGBTQ community members get the help they need. She also wants to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline and wants to ensure the county spends more money on education than prisons and jails.
“I would like to be able to look back in four years and say I advocated for change, that I brought around practices that champion equity and equality,” says Sawyer. — Deborah D. Douglas serves as managing editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and is currently the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.
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