WEST PLAINS — If not for the front-page play the local newspaper gave a resident's outraged letter, a billboard attacking a turbaned "Barack 'Hussein' Obama'' might have remained strictly a local matter.
True, the billboard is highly visible from U.S. 63 – a major north-south route through Missouri and Arkansas – and Becky Estes probably spoke for many in this small southern Missouri town when she wrote in her letter to the West Plains Daily Quill, "What must travelers think of us?''
But the travelers who spread the word far and wide about the sign and its caricature of the Democratic presidential nominee were not those cruising the nation's highways, but writers and readers of sites on the boundary-free World Wide Web.
Within a day of the Oct. 6 publication of Estes' brief letter, images of the billboard – and arch commentary on whether it was racist, erroneous or perfectly accurate – sprouted on Web sites.
Located on private property just south of West Plains on U.S. 63 across from a Dairy Queen, the sign bears a cartoonish illustration of a grinning Obama in a turban and the words: "Barack 'Hussein' Obama equals more abortions, same sex marriages, taxes, gun regulations.''
Just who created the billboard has remained a bit mysterious eight days after it first appeared. The Daily Quill reported that the landowner said he had not put it up.
Two days after running Estes' letter, the Daily Quill devoted half of its front page to more letters – many praising the billboard, others dismayed.
Jay Thompson wrote from East Peoria, Ill., to ask, "What was erroneous about the message on the sign?''
Katherine Berry Kilmanis of Tacoma, Wash., a former resident of southern Missouri's Ozarks region, wrote that she had spread news of the billboard to 100-plus people and received 30 to 40 responses. Most, she said, responded that "we, after seeing this billboard, do not believe Ozarkers are ignorant country bumpkins.''
West Plains resident Raymond L. Fine, signing his letter "A concerned sovereign,'' wrote of the billboard, "The sign is 'straight talk,' something we have been missing. ... FYI, we are 'Ozark Americans,' not Ozarkers, hillbillies or any other name.''
And while several defended the use of quotation marks around Obama's middle name as insignificant, others called it an attempt to mark the Illinois senator as an outsider at best and provocatively dangerous at worst.
Some conversations on politically oriented Web sites have turned on whether the caricature, and the billboard's message, are racist.
"The billboard is a symptom of the ongoing disease, racism,'' a commenter wrote on the Web site Salon.com. "I'm becoming alarmed that there are certain 'Americans' who won't 'allow' an Obama presidency to happen.''
To which another commenter responded: "To be fair, we have actually come a long way. We're about to elect the first black president. And while some may be going (expletive) about this in a truly racist fashion, here's one way things have changed: 40 years ago, that billboard would not be posted anonymously, but would have been sponsored by the local chamber of commerce and every other near above board' white organization in town. At least in this day and age, the racists feel enough shame to keep their faces hidden.''