A controversial roadside billboard outside of Pearl, Mississippi, which features Donald Trump’s famous campaign slogan has residents both angered and confused.
The sign which stands on Highway 80 has the President-elect’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” superimposed on a well-known photo from the Civil Rights era. The photo is the famous “Two Minute Warning” picture taken by photographer Spider Martin featuring a group of protesters including Hosea Williams and now-Congressman John Lewis confronting state troopers moments before violence broke out on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama in what became to be know as “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.
Moments after the photo was taken, state troopers unleashed tear gas on protesters and began beating them with billy clubs. They arrested and jailed dozens of them.
Republican Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has said that the billboard imagery is divisive. “This is reprehensible. It’s disappointing that this group would use this image in an attempt to divide the country,” Bryant said.
Brad Rogers, the Mayor of Pearl, wants it taken down. “Of course I don’t necessarily approve of the sign, but according to the First Amendment, and First Amendment protection, there’s not a whole lot the city can do,” he said.
Residents do not know what to make of it. One resident, speaking to TV station WLBT said:
“I don’t really know what to think. It’s definitely offensive. But it’s their right at the same time. And that’s what we as people need to understand. That everyone is entitled to their First Amendment.”
The billboard is actually part of a national ad campaign that commissioned works from artists and photographers on various politically charged topics such as gun control for ads on billboards, social media, and public transit.
Eric Gottesman, co-founder of For Freedom, the group that is running the campaign, said that there is no single goal or intent behind the billboard in Pearl. It is not meant to be humorous or take political sides. Instead, “Make America Great Again” was used to prompt the question ‘when was America great? He hopes to inspire conversation about the different ways the phrase can be interpreted beyond the campaign.
“What we hear today in some political rhetoric is that making America great means enforcing a single vision on America,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is use art to provoke people to talk about these things and bring them to a different kind of conversation, one that goes beyond symbolic gestures of what America is supposed to stand for.”
He continued by saying that the photo and its placement are a reference to the South’s history of civil rights protests. The group actually wanted to place it in Selma, itself. However, no billboards wee available. So, the group looked to other locations in the south where race relations have been prominently displayed through protest.
“We don’t know much about Donald Trump except that he likes attention and he will say anything to get it,” said Hank Willis Thomas, another co-founder of For Freedoms. “I really want us to start to ask harder questions like, ‘Well, what do you mean when you say make America great again?’ That has not yet been asked.”
We’re hoping to take a place with an important history of protest and people struggling for freedoms and make people think about what that means today in the context of current political conversations. Is this billboard a document of the past or is it the future we face as citizens?”