Meet the Voters

Check out Meet the Voters, Part II: Election Day for more portraits and stories from the 2019 Memphis Municipal Election.

This piece was produced in partnership by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News with story by Andria Brown and Cole Bradley and photos by Andrea Morales. 

While 60-plus candidates in 18 races face off in the Oct. 3 Municipal Election, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News turn a lens toward the Memphians and Memphis neighborhoods that the winners — mayor, city council representatives, judges and court clerk — will serve.

We gathered reflections from early voters at the Abundant Grace Fellowship Church polling site on the power and purpose of voting, and will continue our coverage with insights from those voting on Thursday.

Related: 'Meet the Voters, Part II: Election Day'

What we know for sure: Incoming office holders will inherit a city that includes 662,038 total residents in 324 square-miles. Memphis is roughly 63% black, 30% white and 7 percent Latino.

It’s a young city. Millennials range from ages 23 to 39 and are the largest generation and voting block, but 62% of residents are adults under 65. This election is also the first time a millennial, Tami Sawyer, has been among the top candidates for mayor.

While Memphis has seen modest gains in population and industry in the last decade, it’s also a city of persistent and systemic poverty. Memphis is second among comparable cities in both overall and childhood poverty. The rankings mask a vast spectrum of experiences with large gaps between citizens based on factors like race, place and age.

City Council District 5, for example, includes both Binghampton and Belle Meade.

Across Binghampton’s census tracts, the median household income dips as low as $22,000, the percent of people of color is as high as 90%, and the poverty rate as high as 46%. Belle Meade has a median household income of $110,000; 94.5% of its residents are white, and the area has a 4.4% poverty rate.

The Opportunity Atlas, based at Harvard University, found people who grew up in Binghampton and are now in their mid-30s have up to a 5.5% chance of incarceration, and less than 7% are in the top 20% of earners based on household income. People in the same age group who grew up in Belle Meade have less than 1% chance of incarceration and a full 50% are in the top 20 percent of earners.

The election commission’s polling results showed 52,201 early voters and Whitehaven's Abundant Grace as the busiest early voting site. Early voters there highlighted the stakes of this election on the last day of early voting, Sept. 28, at a makeshift photo booth in the church's parking lot set up alongside poll workers and guests attending a funeral service.

Hand-drawn signs read, “Tell us your voting stories” and “We’re here to listen.”

Amber Stokes, 40, educator

What motivated you to come out and vote today?
“I just wanted to make sure that I am exercising change in my community. I always tell people, if you want change, you’ve got to exercise your right to vote and be the change. We may not always get the results we want, but you can at least say ‘I took an opportunity to share my voice and hopefully, the people that are elected will effect change in the community.’”

Do you generally consider yourself active in political or civic issues?
“I wouldn’t say, ‘No.’ I just let my vote count.”

What do you hope your vote will accomplish?
“I hope that our vote will accomplish a better Memphis, a better community, and hopefully, for our children more so. We want our children to remain in this community or go off and come back and effect change. So we want our children to see the effects of our votes.”

Why is it important for your voice to be heard?
“In our community, we think nothing is going to happen. It’s always been this way. You know, you may not be able to go to town hall meetings, you may not be able to go to the school board meetings. But if you can’t do those things, at the very least you can vote. That’s your way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m not excited about what’s going on. I want to see these things happen.’ Your vote is the way to do that if you don’t have any other means.”

Are there any specific ways you’ve seen voting make a difference?
“Yes. I’ve seen some people come into office and effect change in our community, and not in just in our community but in our nation as well. So I know that a vote can make a difference.”

Cynthia Ann Houston, 56, educator

What motivated you to come out and vote today?
“I wanted to get here before the 3rd because I’m an educator, and I know I can’t hardly get off work. I just want to vote because I feel like I have a voice in a change.”

Why is it important for your voice to be heard?
“I’m an American citizen, and I just think that our voices need to be heard. There should be a change, and we got to start here. Everybody vote, and then when we vote we’ll feel like we had a part in this change for the better.”

Are there any specific ways you’ve seen voting make a difference?
“I have. Different candidates and different things that they’re trying for the city, there has been some changes. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re getting there, we’re getting there with freedom and equality, just being equal. Everybody is important, you know. There’s no black race, white race, but a community as one. And that’s what voting is all about because we’ll make the change.”

Eve Slaughter, 30, educator

When was the first and last time you voted?
“The first time I voted was the presidential election of 2004. I was 18. And the last time I voted was the last election cycle.”

What motivated you to come out and vote today?
“Definitely appreciate early voting. I think it gives us a good opportunity to really think about who we want to vote for and why and do our research and just make sure we beat the crowds. It was important for us to come together as a family because we like to bring the children to vote with us any time we vote.”

Are there any specific policies you feel affect your household or employment or community?
“The policies around education, pre-K, early pre-K. I’m an educator, several friends and family members are educators, so I’m just really interested in saying who’s the best person for that role.”

Do you consider yourself active in political or civic issues?
“I like to do my research and get to know the candidates. We’ve supported quite a few local candidates in the last several years. We do sign petitions if the cause is just right for us.”

Why is it important for your voice to be heard?
“Fifty years ago my parents participated in the Civil Rights movement alongside their parents and their siblings. My godmother was a part of their work here in Memphis, as well as in Montgomery. And so continuing the tradition of being a part of so many things that our people have fought for and fought against is very important to me. And again, it’s very important for my children to see us emulate the things that helped us to get to where we are. And to teach them to be grateful and to use their voice to make a positive impact on the world.”

Are there any specific ways you’ve seen voting make a difference?
“Oh, yes. When I think about all of the work around pre-K in this city and how much we have grown that is because of voters’ voices. And while it’s still necessary for us to continue the work; I think that leadership in Memphis seeing us stand up for them is very, very important.”

Edward Rooks, 60, U.S. Army, Retired

When was the first and last time you voted?
“I vote every year. I vote every time.”

What motivated you to vote today?
“I’m just getting back in town and they still had it going on, so I came back and voted. The only thing I’m concerned about is the mayoral race.”

Are there any specific policies you’re most concerned about?
“We just need somebody younger as the mayor and maybe things will change a little bit. I think the city council and the mayor need to get together more on certain agendas.”

Do you consider yourself active and political or civic issues?
“Not really. I’m just a regular person. I work a lot, so I just come and do my part.”

Why is it important for your voice to be heard?
“Well, you know, back in the day, a lot of blacks died from getting this right to vote. Me, being 60 years old, I’ve been voting ever since I came of age. Whether I like the election or not, I’m going to vote.”

Are there specific ways you’ve seen voting make a difference?
“No, I haven’t. Not enough people come out to vote.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.