GUNS BLAZING

The South’s Billboard Holy War

There’s a weird war happening on Southern freeways. Evangelicals and atheists are taking up dueling billboard space, leaving us wondering: what’s the point?

01.14.15 10:45 AM ET

For those who live in the American South, the news that white supremacist billboards are appearing in and near Birmingham, Alabama does not come as a surprise. Last summer, a billboard reading “Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White” appeared on I-20. Earlier this month, another on I-59 warned that “Diversity Means Chasing Down the Last White Person.” The secessionist group League of the South claimed to have made the former, and the latter, owned by a private citizen, appears to take its talking points from the white supremacist White Genocide Project. But alarming as these billboards may be, they are, unfortunately, par for the course below the Mason-Dixon line.

I didn’t pay much attention to Interstate scenery myself until I moved to the South five years ago. Now, it’s hard to keep my eyes off the roadside. Not only are there countless cars bearing Confederate bumper stickers, there are also prominent Confederate flags flying over I-75, one north of Tifton, Georgia, another just outside of Tampa, and others scattered throughout the region. Alongside I-95 on the way into North Carolina, there are dozens of billboards featuring a racist caricature of a sombrero-wearing Mexican named Pedro, who urges me to stop at the infamous eyesore of a tourist trap known as South of the Border. One of these billboards features a large three-dimensional sausage and promises, “You’re always a wiener at Pedro’s.”

If I drive west on I-40, I will eventually pass a 19-story tall cross outside of Amarillo, Texas because apparently some local Christians interpreted “Everything’s bigger in Texas” as a commandment rather than a cute regional saying. And wherever I roam in the South, doomsday proclamations and manipulative anti-abortion messages about fetal heartbeats are so commonplace that they barely register anymore. The “I’ll Be Back” billboards, however, are particularly arresting. My favorite—if I can call it that—is an absurd, poorly Photoshopped mélange of Jesus, troops, tanks, and helicopters below the emblazoned reminder “I’m Still in Control,” with an explosion in the background completing the mise-en-scène.

Against this backdrop, white supremacist billboards don’t stick out in the South—they fit right in. Local leaders in Alabama can denounce the billboards all they like, but paranoid predictions of white genocide are a logical addition to the tapestry of ideologies that is already on display on Southern highways. When an average road trip in the South involves driving past plantation gift shops behind a truck with a birther bumper sticker, a billboard that explicitly endorses white supremacy is really just filling in the blanks. The Southern Interstates have one and only one redeeming sight: the “Peachoid” along I-85 in Gaffney, South Carolina, which got its well-deserved 15 minutes of fame in an episode of House of Cards. But peach-shaped water tower aside, what is going on down here, y’all?

In the South, rural billboards have become a bizarre battleground for tired culture wars. Roadside attractions act as towering testaments to the ideologies that once shaped the U.S. even more overtly than they do now: Christianity, sexism, and down-home racism.  To be sure, fundamentalist and anti-abortion billboards can be found in most swaths of rural America. There’s even a giant cross in Illinois at the intersection of I-70 and I-57 that’s taller than the one in Texas. But I’ve driven through almost every state but the Dakotas and trust me, nothing compares to the South’s combination of cultural conservatism and lingering Confederate presence. The South is where the irrepressible subconscious of white America waves to you from the side of the road.

But why does it manifest itself in the form of billboards, flags, and crosses? And why is the roadside such prime real estate for incendiary rhetoric in the first place? Billboards remain relatively effective forms of commercial advertising in cities with a large commuter presence but billboards with social messages are not advertising a product, nor are they typically placed in urban areas where ad space would be more expensive. Driving past a loud billboard in the middle of nowhere feels a little bit like watching someone shout impotently into the void. As for flags and crosses, well, they’re just sort of there, aren’t they? What is anyone who rents a cheap billboard or who snatches up land on an access road hoping to accomplish?

The driving factor behind these ads, flags, and attractions seems to be the simple urge to be seen. The Southern Party of Georgia, for example, brags that the Confederate flag outside Tifton is “highly visible to traffic from both directions.” The Sons of Confederate Veterans similarly note that the flag has been “strategically placed” so that it can “be easily seen by the millions who travel Georgia’s main interstate back and forth to Florida.” Cross Ministries, the church affiliated with the Texas cross, claims that “10 million people pass by [the cross] every year” and that it “can be seen from 20 miles away.” The farmer and welder who bought the land for the Confederate flag outside of Tampa was looking for a “high-profile site” that he could still afford. But these roadside sights are nothing more than last-gasp bids for cultural relevance in a world that is, quite literally, passing them by. The people who buy them are playing a no-stakes game of “made you look” with a dogmatic twist.

And while this dogmatic twist is most often a conservative one, atheists are now entering the Southern billboard wars. Last month, the American Atheists organization developed a billboard campaign for Bible Belt cities like Memphis, Nashville, and St. Louis that shows a young girl writing to Santa Claus, asking him to allow her to “skip church” for Christmas. And an atheist coalition in Mississippi just placed an expensive billboard on I-10 in Jackson country that reads, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” While atheists are definitely the underdog in this turf war—a Pew study found that atheists are the least-liked religious group in the U.S. second only to Muslims—the tactic of erecting a billboard is still an asinine one. I can think of a no more useless pissing match than one between fundamentalist Christians and atheists that takes place on bargain basement billboards in the backwoods of America.

The rural Southern political billboard is truly the dick pic of the Interstate, a surefire way to force others to witness your own self-satisfaction but an ineffective way to accomplish anything other than that. These billboards and roadside displays aren’t a form of rhetoric so much as they are what Walt Whitman might call “barbaric yawps,” inchoate assertions of presence in the wilderness. They are bumper stickers for people who don’t feel like bumper stickers are big enough. But as futile as these roadside displays may be, they do have cultural consequences. For non-white Alabamans, white supremacist billboards are a reminder that they live among people who perceive them as a threat. For black travelers on the Interstate, a Confederate flag evokes an all-too-recent history that many white Southerners still wish was their present. And when I drove past South of the Border with a Latina friend, her discomfort was much more palpable than my own.

But the fact that the dying gasp of fundamentalists, secessionists, and supremacists is taking place along the Interstate, of all places, is perhaps a heartening sign. These groups are much more adept at buying useless physical ad space then they are at, say, influencing public opinion on a platform like Twitter, although the most recent Alabama billboard tried to start the hashtag #WhiteGenocide. With social conservatism on a downward trend across every generation of Americans and faith in God plummeting among those born after 1981, these roadside displays come across more like death throes than they do as declarations of faith or confident warnings of the apocalypse. You can put a fundamentalist Jesus on a big poster with guns and tanks and claim that he’s still in control but that doesn’t make it true. And sure, you can paint a message about the impending white genocide on an Alabama billboard, but you’d only be hanging your own cultural irrelevance out to dry.