On Thursday, voters in this soulful Southern city along the Mississippi River will choose among three leading contenders in the nonpartisan race, which pits old school against new school and radical change against continuity.
And as bitter as the race has been, few would be shocked to see bad feelings linger long after Thursday. The old-school entry is Willie Herenton, a 79-year-old former Golden Gloves boxer and educator who became the city's first black mayor in 1991. Herenton dominated local politics during his 18-year reign, which ended amid accusations of corruption and a failed run for Congress.
On the other end of the age spectrum is Tami Sawyer, a 37-year-old social activist and Shelby County commissioner who wants to become Memphis' first female mayor. She too is African-American — but she has challenged a political establishment she says has contributed to economic inequality, rampant blight and racial division.
Between them sits Jim Strickland, the 55-year-old white incumbent who's helped lure economic development and defied the Tennessee legislature to help remove Confederate-era statues from city parks. The race comes at a pivotal time for Memphis, a majority-black city still grappling with economic and social inequities that had long been ingrained when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there in 1968. The downtown area has shown signs of rebirth in recent years, with businesses moving in and new hotels planned. But neighborhoods just beyond still suffer from much of the same persistent woes King confronted a half century ago.
"This is a really challenging time to be a big city mayor," said political scientist Marcus Pohlmann, a Rhodes College professor emeritus and longtime observer of Memphis. "Big city mayors have to deal with the repercussions of challenges in the schools, crime, a tax base that is not overflowing with money to help pave the streets, and so on."
Winning over black voters is considered key. Turnout in a non-congressional, non-presidential election year is expected to be low, with 30%-40% of registered voters an optimistic estimate, Pohlmann said.
Elected in 2015 as the city's first white mayor in nearly 25 years, Strickland likes to say, "Memphis has momentum." A lawyer and former City Council member, he sought to add more police, repair roads, enact universal pre-K and balance budgets without raising taxes.
But the police and fire department unions both backed Herenton, and critics say economic development hasn't extended beyond downtown. "I'm proud of my record," Strickland said. "The public knows it takes more than 3½ years to solve our decades old crime problem, poverty and lack of education achievement. But we have progressed."
Few Memphians have stronger name recognition than Herenton. He helped grow the city's economy and schools. Historic Beale Street went from a tattered remnant to a rejuvenated tourist destination. He led a revitalization of the riverfront and helped lure an NBA team to Memphis.
Questions of public corruption dogged Herenton near the end of his tenure, and he resigned in 2009 amid a federal investigation into whether he used his office to help his private real estate deals. The investigation ended without charges.
Herenton instead ran for Congress, but was trounced by fellow Democrat Steve Cohen in the 2010 primary. At the time, Herenton said it was probably his last political stand. Now Herenton refuses to utter Sawyer's name. Instead he refers to her as a "young lady" and a "distraction."
"During my absence, I have observed a deterioration in a social, economic and political fabric that I helped to build," he said. Sawyer, a supporter of Black Lives Matter who pushed for the Confederate statues' removal, raked Herenton and Strickland for refusing to debate and for appearances at a recent Republican Party fundraiser. She has supported a $15 hourly wage for workers and has criticized police for their treatment of minorities, including the shootings of young black men in 2015 and this past June. Sawyer wants to improve student performance in the Memphis schools.
She hopes her message can split the difference between Herenton and Strickland. "We can't afford to continue the basic leadership that has been promised and has been underdelivered by the current administration, nor do I believe that we go back to the past of the leadership of Dr. Herenton," Sawyer said.
Sawyer said she was personally insulted when a local magazine portrayed her in a cover caricature widely panned as racist. Memphis Magazine pulled the issue and apologized. But then Sawyer's own tweets from years ago surfaced, including one in 2014 that appeared to brag about outing a lesbian teacher who later quit.
Sawyer has apologized for some of the tweets and has become a champion of LGBTQ causes. At a public appearance, Sawyer supporter and CNN commentator Angela Rye called Strickland a racist and a "Dixiecrat" but offered no supporting evidence. Sawyer said she didn't know Rye was going to make those comments but declined to distance herself from them.
Strickland, an NAACP member, says Rye's comments didn't merit a response.