Mississippi Billboard Meant to Start Conversation on Social Injustice

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mississippi billboard
photo provided by WLBT MS

A billboard erected on Highway 80 outside Pearl, MS featuring President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” over a picture of the “Bloody Sunday” conflict on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama is making headlines this week. The billboard was placed by super PAC For Freedoms. Some have expressed outrage over this Mississippi billboard, however, the organization responsible for this sign has a message for those who may not understand the purpose behind the statement.

In a phone interview today with For Freedoms founder Hank Willis Thomas, it was made clear the objective of For Freedoms in erecting this Mississippi billboard may not be as it has been received:

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“When I think of ‘making America great again’, I think of when people were standing up fighting injustice, as they were that day. That is the purpose behind this billboard. I think the photo used shows a similarity between that day, not so long ago, and the current climate today.”

mississippi billboard
Two Minute Warning by Spider Martin courtesy Spider Martin/Tracy Martin

The photo was taken by journalist Spider Martin and is documented as his most well-known photograph. Titled Two Minute Warning, the picture shows marchers facing a line of state troopers in Selma moments before police beat the protesters on March 7, 1965. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.

This particular march was organized locally by James Bevel, Amelia Boynton, and others who were met by state troopers and county possemen. The unarmed protesters were attacked by law enforcement with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over the county line. Police beat Boynton unconscious, and the media publicized worldwide a picture of her lying wounded on the bridge.

mississippi billboard
Amelia Boynton after being beaten by police for protesting anti-Black voter laws on Bloody Sunday photo credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

The violence of the “Bloody Sunday” led to a national outcry and some acts of civil disobedience, targeting both the Alabama state and federal governments. The protesters demanded protection for the Selma marchers and a new federal voting rights law to enable African Americans to register and vote without harassment. President Lyndon Johnson, whose administration had been working on a voting rights law, held a historic, nationally televised joint session of Congress on March 15 to ask for the bill’s introduction and passage.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant called the billboard reprehensible, saying, “It’s disappointing that this group would use this image as an attempt to divide the country.”

Pearl city officials say the billboard doesn’t violate any laws or city ordinances, and as long as it’s not vulgar, the city has no control over it. Pearl’s mayor stated that everyone is entitled to their right to Freedom of Speech.

An excerpt from the For Freedoms website:

“Inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms from 1941, our super PAC aims to subvert a ‘Rockwellian’ nostalgia for a ‘simpler’ America while co-opting a visual language that is accessible to a wide audience of viewers.”

mississippi billboard
Albert James Ignacio and Wyatt Gallery

Founded by Hank Willis Thomas, a photographer and conceptual artist, and Eric Gottesman, a video artist and activist, the super PAC is named after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” wartime address in 1941. This speech was intended as a call to safeguard the freedoms of speech and worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. Contributing artists and photographers include Carrie Mae Weems, Rashid Johnson, Xaviera Simmons, Alec Soth, Bayeté Ross Smith, Fred Tomaselli, and Marilyn Minter. Their works have been used for billboards, building signs, subway advertising, Internet memes, social media, and select print advertising.

When asked what he has to say to people who are outraged by the Mississippi billboard, Mr. Thomas made a call-to-action, “It was events such as Bloody Sunday that allowed us to move forward as a nation from oppression. If you are frustrated or feel outrage, this is how you should express those feelings; through civil disobedience and taking action against injustice we have been able to, throughout history, alter the course of events and change the conversation”, he then added, “That’s what we are trying to do, start and continue the conversation. If this isn’t the way to do that, then we hope to find it. This conversation is important and without it, we cannot advance as a society. How do we start that? What is the best way to start this conversation?”

It appears For Freedoms has done what they set out to do; the conversation is ongoing thanks to this Mississippi billboard. We want to hear from you. Do you think this sign can help start the conversation about social injustice in America? Where do you stand on the action of civil disobedience in reaction to discriminatory laws against marginalized people? Can Trump’s campaign slogan be co-opted to reignite the fight within those who stand against injustice?

Jeff B. White
Jeff White is a News Editor and contributor for The Pacific Tribune. Jeff is a gay man who was born and raised in Mississippi; he has lived all over the country, but will always consider the South to be his home. Mr. White's passion for the truth and empathy for those less fortunate are driving forces in all that he does.

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