Billboard kerfuffel ends with TDC retreat



Two Monroe County Tourist Development Commission advertising billboards that raised eyebrows for seeming to appropriate the message of Martin Luther King, Jr., have been removed, according to the TDC.

Dozens of posters to Facebook this week objected to the use of the phrase “Free at last” on the billboards, due to its association with the slain civil rights leader, known to generations of Americans simply as “MLK.”

“The advertisement has been removed,” said President Andy Newman of Newman PR, which handles the TDC account. “The Monroe County Tourist Development Council sincerely apologizes to those who found the ad insensitive. That was not the intention.”

“Free at Last,” is listed on as “a Negro spiritual quoted by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous 1963 ‘I Have a Dream‘ speech,” and concludes with the line, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The controversial billboard campaign ran in two Florida markets, before being shuttered on May 28, according to Newman, whose firm has been working hand-in-glove with the TDC for decades. But during a week in which America’s painful legacy of racial animus was on tragic display in Minneapolis, many people felt the campaign was in poor taste.

“I am not OK with this,” said Facebook poster Dakin Weekley, who is also the son of District 1 City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley. “Appropriating the words from a Martin Luther King speech to sell tourism is, I hope, not who we are as a community.”

District 6 City Commissioner Clayton Lopez also objected to the TDC campaign.

“I think it is/was abhorrent that they would not see the possible offense in the message, first about who were are in the Keys and especially Key West,” Lopez wrote in an email. “But moreover, when they would take the indelible words of Dr. King, and use them depicting people (none of whom look like Dr. King, or me, for that matter) to advertise this travesty of misrepresentation!”

The Wikipedia page also includes dozens of references to the phrase in literature and music.

“The ad rotated with another Florida Keys message named ‘Open Spaces,’ and ran in Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach,” Newman said. “It was created in April and has been displaying in those markets since May 18.”

Newman couldn’t say what the campaign cost, but claimed “the outdoor advertising is a small component of a comprehensive campaign for the reopening of the Keys.”