The Story Behind This Controversial ‘Make America Great Again’ Billboard in Mississippi

It was created by an artist-run super PAC

A billboard in Pearl, Miss., featuring an iconic image taken during the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., with the phrase "Make America Great Again" plastered across it caused some stir this week.  

Many on Twitter have called the billboard racist or out of place, and many are unsure what to make of it. A local news station, WJTV, reported earlier that the billboard had been covered up.

So what was the true mission of the billboard, and who was behind it?

For Freedoms, a super PAC run by artists, created it and put it up before the presidential election. The super PAC's co-founder, Hank Willis Thomas, said the placement of the billboard was strategic. While the group looked to place this particular image on Highway 80 in Alabama, the same route civil rights activists took on their 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., Thomas said, "We couldn't get any billboards along 80 in Alabama, but we were able to get a billboard on the same highway in Mississippi."

The image was also thoughtfully chosen. It was captured by Spider Martin on March 7, 1965, more commonly known as "Bloody Sunday." The photo shows a group of civil rights activists standing calmly at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A group of Alabama state troopers approaches the activists as a crowd gathers in the distance, watching the events unfold. The image shows the moments before state troopers descended on the peaceful protesters with tear gas and billy clubs.    

Thomas said he had been in conversation with Martin's daughter, Tracy Martin, for quite some time, hoping to use some of her father's work in his own art. This image fit perfectly with what For Freedoms was hoping to convey with its now controversial billboard, which features President-elect Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," across the iconic image. 

According to Thomas, the goal of using Trump's own language on the billboard was to "reframe what it means to make America great again as a way to inspire people to think more deeply about what the president-elect means when he says that," Thomas said. "Through our own investigation, all we could really think about as a time when America was great, in an unironic way, was when the citizen heroes of the civil rights movement stood up to injustice and brutality with dignity, love, integrity and courage and forced our nation to think about it's greatness and humbled institutions for a brief moment."

The super PAC also put up a handful of additional billboards in the area, but the "Make America Great Again" one seemed to draw the most attention, especially after the election. However, the debate surrounding the billboard seems to accomplish For Freedoms' mission of starting a conversation about Trump's rhetoric and what "Make America Great Again" truly means.