PEARL, Miss. — A provocative roadside billboard in Mississippi that mixes art and politics has united onlookers in anger and confusion.
The sign on Highway 80 outside Pearl features President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” superimposed on a well-known Civil Rights-era image by photographer Spider Martin. The famous “Two Minute Warning” photo shows a group of protesters including Hosea Williams and John Lewis confronting state troopers moments before violence broke out on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, in the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” conflict.
The photo was taken moments before troopers unleashed tear gas on protesters and beat them with billy clubs before sending dozens to jail.
Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has called the billboard imagery divisive and the mayor of Pearl wants it gone. Otherwise, people aren’t sure what to make of it.
“I don’t really know what to think,” Pearl resident Madeline Nixon told CNN affiliate WLBT. “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.”
Is it racist? Maybe, Pearl resident Madison Hall told WLBT. Or, it could be there “to show that cops are there to protect you, and they’re there to help you.”
If people are talking about the billboard then it’s working, said Eric Gottesman, co-founder of For Freedoms, an artist-run political action committee that uses visual media to inspire political engagement. The billboard is part of a national ad campaign that commissioned works from artists and photographers on topics from gun control to campaign finance for billboards, social media memes and public transit ads.
There’s no single goal or intent behind the Pearl billboard, he said. It’s not irony or satire, anti-Trump or pro-Clinton. Using “Make America Great Again” was meant to prompt the question when was America great?, he said. From there, he hopes it inspires conversation about the different ways the phrase can be interpreted beyond the campaign message.
“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.”
The photo — as well as the billboard’s placement — is a reference to the South’s history of civil rights protests, he said. The group wanted to place the imagery work in Selma but no billboard spaces were available, Gottesman said. Instead, the group looked to other locations in the South where race relations have been tested over the years through protest.
The billboard is located near Pearl’s airport, which is named for American civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
“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,” he said. “Is this billboard a document of the past or is it the future we face as citizens?”