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‘Make America Great Again’ Billboard Sparks Controversy in Miss.

Here's the thing: For Freedoms' "Make America Great Again" billboard seems more triggering for black people than a wake-up call for white people. If being subversive is the point, it's a fail for me.

make america great again
FOR FREEDOMS/TWITTER

At first glance, the “Make America Great Billboard” on Highway 80 in Pearl Miss. looks like it was bought and paid for by the Klansmen and/or Fraternal Order of Police that endorsed President-elect Donald Trump.

But looks can be deceiving.

WJTV.com reports that the billboard was paid for by For Freedoms, “the first artist-run super Pac” that believes “it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process.”

The billboard shows the iconic image of Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was then Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), trying to lead freedom fighters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. They were all stopped by Alabama State troopers.

The incident, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” took place on March 7, 1965. It was a demonstration for voting rights, but also a call for justice for Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, who was shot and killed by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler.

For many young activists of this generation, Jackson’s murder was to the Civil Rights Movement what Michael Brown, Jr.’s state-sanctioned execution was for the Ferguson Uprising.

In the end, after Sheriff Jim Clark deputized random white men to join in violently halting the march, there were many people injured by billy clubs and tear gas. Civil Rights Leader Amelia Boynton Robinson was among those critically wounded.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would go into effect later that year.

As one might imagine, Selma is a sacred place for many black people in the United States and this is sacred imagery. The immediate assumption by many people was that white supremacists were responsible for the billboard, but based on the content of the For Freedoms website, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

More about For Freedoms:

We believe that artists, and art, play an important role in galvanizing our society to do better. We are frustrated with a system in which money, divisiveness, and a general lack of truth-telling have stifled complex conversation.

Founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, For Freedoms encourages new forms of critical discourse surrounding the upcoming 2016 presidential election. Our medium for this project is American democracy, and our mission is to support the effort to reshape it into a more transparent and representative form.

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. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

A quick tour of their website shows an image of a Black man standing behind a torn Confederate battle flag; another image that seems to be a nod to gender fluidity and trans identity; signage that pushes society to free itself of patriarchy, fear, and student debt; and an image showing how white supremacist state violence targets black people.

Here’s the thing: For Freedoms’ “Make America Great Again” billboard seems more triggering for black people than a wake-up call for white people. If being subversive is the point, it’s a fail for me; instead, it feels unnecessarily violent and exploitative. A reminder of the apartheid state that black people in this country, especially in the Deep South, have never quite been able to shake.

These things bring joy to white people; not awareness. And I can’t think of any socially-conscious organization that would want to subject black people in the South to this imagery as they try to carry on with their daily lives.

According to WJTV.com, Miss. Governor Phil Bryant called the billboard “reprehensible.”

“It’s disappointing that this group would use this image as an attempt to divide the country,” said Bryant.

Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers said that the billboard was not “vulgar,” nor did it violate any laws or ordinances; thus, it’s protected by free speech.

I will admit that I had a visceral reaction to seeing this billboard, so perhaps I need to sit with this one for a few days.

In the meantime, share your thoughts in the comment section.

 

 

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and an associate editor at The Root. She was awarded the 2016 Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence which honors exemplary reporting on black life in America. She was also named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.

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