Is Memphis, Tennessee a Liberal City?

Those wishing to move to a large city like Memphis may wonder where it leans politically. If you’re one of those people, this article will help you find out!

Memphis, Tennessee is a liberal city. The city of Memphis itself overwhelmingly votes for Democratic Party candidates during elections. Memphis’s suburbs are moderately liberal, while the rural areas of Shelby County (in which Memphis resides) tend to vote more for Republican candidates.

Want to know exactly where Memphis leans politically and which areas around it are similar or not? The rest of this article will explain in greater detail why many people consider Memphis to be a liberal city.

Why is Memphis Considered a Liberal City?

If one bases their definition of liberal on whether a person or area largely supports Democrats or Republicans, then MemphisOpens in a new tab. is liberal because they have been a Democrat-controlled city for quite a long time.

Shelby County, the county in which Memphis resides, voted 64% for Democrats in the 2020 presidential election, as opposed to 34% of the population voting for Republican candidates. Not only was this case in the most recent election, but it has been the case since 2000. The driving factor for the majority of Democratic votes in Shelby County is, according to general consensusOpens in a new tab., the city of Memphis itself.

The rural areas of Shelby County are not overwhelmingly democratic, but rather tend to lean somewhat Republican, at least for the most part. Memphis’s huge population grants it a lot of voting power, however, making that somewhat irrelevant when it comes to presidential elections. After all, Memphis is the most highly populated city in all of Tennessee, and Memphis is also the city seat of Shelby County.

Places in Shelby county directly adjacent to Memphis tend to be democratic as well (such as Germantown, West Memphis, and Bartlett), whereas areas slightly further away from downtown Memphis are pretty evenly split between Democratic and Republican voters (like areas such as Lakeland and Collierville).

Areas like Horn Lake or Olive Branch tend to be staunchly Republican. This makes for relatively close presidential elections, as mentioned earlier, but Shelby County is still considered liberal as a whole. This is in stark contrast to the majority of Tennessee, which as a state is moderately and consistently conservative.

While Memphis may be a Democrat majority city, it is, at least unofficially, more of a “Southern Democrat” type city than say, Los Angeles or any other West Coast liberal city. A moderate Democrat from MemphisOpens in a new tab. could be considered to be somewhat conservative if they were to move to a place like San Francisco, where the politics are much more “progressive” in some ways than many areas of the South or even the East Coast.

Nashville, another major city in Tennessee, is generally considered to be more “liberal” in a progressive sense, or more conducive to views a California Democrat might hold.

The current mayor in Memphis is Jim StricklandOpens in a new tab., who has promised to reinvest in Memphis’s neighborhoods, bolster the economy, and increase public safety. Jim Strickland is a Democrat and has formerly served on the Memphis City Council as both Vice Chairman and Chairman of the council before being elected mayor. Strickland is currently serving his second term as mayor of Memphis.

Government History of Memphis

Memphis actually lost its representation as a city briefly in 1880 as a result of the yellow fever epidemic, a disease spread by mosquitoes that were considered to be one of the world’s most deadly infectious diseases in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1893, Memphis regained “home rule” and was run with a city commission form of governmentOpens in a new tab. until 1965. (A city commission government is run by a “commission” of elected leaders who form a small board.)

Each member elected to their small governing board is in charge of running a different area of the city, such as the fire department or public works, with one person being mayor. It is the oldest form of municipal government in the US, but it is used by less than 1% of the cities in the US nowadays.

Throughout the 1910s to the 1950s, Memphis was run by a political machine under the control of E.H. “Boss” Crump, who was a Democrat. Crump used the usual machine boss tactics of patronage for friends, bureaucratic hurdles for political opponents, and ballot manipulation.

Crump supported the New Deal, and as a result, received federal aid for the city and new jobs. The city managed to retain a good amount of jobs throughout the Great Depression. Crump also came to include some black leadership in the city into his political machine, which gained him the black vote of the city at the expense of being able to exert as much influence through patronage.

The city’s water and sewage/drainage systems were improved drastically during this time, helping to prevent any further major disease outbreaks.

After Crump died, black voters in Memphis took the opportunity to increase their political power in the city. The Shelby Democratic Party was an independent political party that sought to support the election of black political candidates in Memphis through fundraising and coordination.

Their largest political push was made in 1959 with the “Volunteer Ticket”. This ticket was independent of all other political parties of the time. All the proposed candidates were black and from Memphis. Benjamin Hooks, Russell Sugarman, and A.W. Willis, as well as Reverends Roy Love and Henry Clay Bunton, ran for political office at this time using the Volunteer Ticket.

Martin Luther King Jr. himself actually came to Memphis in order to support the Volunteer Ticket and was enthusiastic about the level of civic engagement he saw in Memphis, Tennessee. While the Volunteer Ticket was not directly successful in terms of placing its supported politicians into office, it did increase the engagement of black voters at the polls as a result of the campaigning, fundraising, and heightened awareness that it brought to its cause.

However, the city still experienced significant segregation for many years after this, with the 60s and 70s finally bringing about desegregation after a long struggle from both local and national civil rights activists.

Harold Ford, Sr., from Memphis, was the first black elected national official from Tennessee and served for several terms. Memphis elected Dr. W.W. Herenton as its first African-American mayor in 1991. Herenton served as mayor for four consecutive terms, the first Memphis mayor to ever do so.

The Civil Rights Movement in Memphis

Memphis was deeply involved with the events of the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century. The Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 is a good example of the activism that came out of Memphis during the 1960s.

The movement was held in order to get better pay for the city’s many sanitation workers, who were paid poorly even by the standards of the time for the hazardous work they did. They marched for better pay and to draw awareness to their working conditions.

Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most famous Civil Rights Movement Activist of all time, came to support the strike and its workers but was tragically killed on April 4th of that year while he was staying at the Lorraine Hotel in downtown Memphis.

There were some violent reprisals in the form of rioting in the city, which caused more middle-class and white citizens to leave to the suburbs, which left the city of Memphis with an even higher percentage of black voters. This has in some ways solidified the power of more Democratic political movements in the time since, as black voters tend to vote for Democratic candidates more than their white counterparts.

Current Government Organization in Memphis

Memphis is currently governed by a mayor and by a 13-member city council. Mayors in Memphis are elected to 4-year terms with a limit of 2 terms. The mayor of Memphis is the only one with contracting authority for the city, helps carry out city policies, and has the power to appoint board members to various different agencies and commissions in the city.

The Council Members of the city have the same 4-year term and 2-term limits as the mayor. There are seven City Council Members elected from single-member districts, and 6 (or 3 from each) elected from a pair of super districts that cover half of the city each.

The City Council convenes 24 times per year, and generally on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. All city council meetings are open to the public.

The City Council has both a chair and vice chair which they elect independently. They organize in the form of committees, create laws for the city, and approve budgets, in addition to setting the property tax rate for the City of Memphis.

The City also has a judicial branch, with judges and the City Court Clerk also elected by citizens to 4-year terms.

The City is governed by a mayor-councilOpens in a new tab. form of government as of Jan. 1, 1968. This form of government replaced the earlier commission government that Memphis had been previously been led by formally since 1909.

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