A Harrisburg billboard’s depiction of a slave with a spiked metal collar around his neck rises to the level of a hate crime, said a retired Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission director, who plans to report it.
The billboard, which says “Slaves, obey your masters,” a quote from the Bible, was paid for by the groups American Atheists and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers. It went up Tuesday morning at 13th and Paxton streets in the Allison Hill neighborhood, the city’s most racially diverse section, angering some African-Americans, including clergy, legislators, the mayor and the president of the local NAACP branch.
The billboard company rarely takes down signs, a spokesman said.
The message is intended for state lawmakers who recently passed a bill announcing 2012 as the Year of the Bible, the American Atheists said.
Democratic Rep. Mark Cohen, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, American Civil Liberties Union and American Atheists have all vowed to work for a repeal of the Year of the Bible designation.
“The message this billboard conveys is [that] the House of Representatives should not be celebrating a barbaric and Bronze Age book,” according to the American Atheists website. “We do not in any way condone slavery, but the Bible does. We have outgrown such hideous actions toward humanity.”
People should be offended at the Bible, not the billboard, a midstate atheist said.
But the billboard did upset people.
“It’s offensive,” said Homer C. Floyd, who was director of the Human Relations Commission for 41 years. “They’re trying to ground it in the Bible, but I think it borders on a hate crime with the slave’s iron around his neck and tongs sticking out, with no clothes on the top half of his body. I’m going to call the Human Relations Commission and see if I can get them to come over and see what we can do about it.”
Tiffany Steele of Mechanicsburg stopped by to see the billboard Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s a disgrace and it’s very disrespectful to the black race,” said Steele, who’s from Mississippi. She said she never saw anything as racially offensive there.
Mayor Linda Thompson called the group Antichrists.
“I’ll continue to pray for the atheists, that they may find Jesus Christ one day,” she said.
The groups knew the billboard would be offensive, said Ernest Perce V, who designed it. He is a Harrisburg atheist who dressed as the “Zombie Muhammad” in a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg last year, offending midstate Muslims. “We commonly say, ‘Read the Bible. It’s unbelievable.’ ”
The groups didn’t post the billboard in Allison Hill to offend African-American Harrisburg residents, said Brian Fields, president of the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers.
“The primary motivation was cost. We are a nonprofit group and that was one of the cheapest locations,” he said.
Lamar Media Corp., which owns the billboard, generally allows any messages unless they are factually inaccurate, misleading or grossly offensive, said spokesman Hal Kilshaw.
“This isn’t a black and white thing, what might offend people.”
Lamar has received a few calls from people who didn’t like the sign, but not many, Kilshaw said.
The response has been both positive and negative from the public at large and from atheists, Fields said.
“There were concerns about the portrayal of the African-American. It’s a classic wood carving of a 19th century slave,” he said. “If you are offended by the billboard, one should ask why you are offended? Is it because of the history lesson or because we’re being reminded of a darker chapter in our history? Or is it because the exposition of the darker aspects of the Bible?”
Slave owners used the Bible as a justification for American slavery, he said.
“It’s simply a history lesson in any way, shape or form.”
This is yet another example of Christians and atheists trying to show each other in the worst possible light, said Douglas “Jake” Jacobsen, distinguished professor of church history at Messiah College in Grantham. “So I think this is unfortunate, but standard kind of behavior.”
Seventy-five percent of Americans and 85 percent or more of African-Americans are Christian, Jacobsen said.
“So if this group thinks somehow this is an effective way to communicate to African Americans, they’re kind of crazy.
“No one today believes they should own slaves because the Bible talks about slavery just as no one today believes the sun revolves around the Earth,” he said. “It’s sort of a wooden interpretation of the bible. It’s not an effective strategy for whatever they’re trying to do.”
Stan Lawson, president of the Greater Harrisburg Area NAACP chapter called the billboard both ineffective and disgusting.
The Bible reflects the time it was written in, but it’s still relevant today, said state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-Chester, who is also a Baptist pastor and one of the co-signers of Year of the Bible legislation. “My master is Jesus Christ. I’m a slave to Christianity. I’m a slave to Christ.”
The billboard outraged him and he hopes the brouhaha will encourage people to read the Bible for themselves.
He and others asked why the slave shown was African-American. There have been many other kinds of slaves through history. “This is all hatred and bigotry.”
Atheists can call the Bible outdated, but it doesn’t bother Ralph Robertson of Allison Hill.
“Their opinion means nothing because they don’t see me as a brother in Christ,” he said. “You shouldn’t call yourself an atheist. You should call yourself a racist.”