Dermatologist A. Melvin Alexander wasn't looking for a crusade. But it found him anyway, and it won't let go.
"I don't believe that anybody gives a damn about all these black men suffering from this condition," he says.
"The issue's got me. It's a glaring injustice. If I don't jump in and help these guys, nobody will. I know more about this than anybody else in the world."
What gets Alexander so inflamed, and has made him a world expert, is pseudofolliculitis barbae, PFB to many people, and "razor bumps" to others.However put, it's painful, scar-causing skin disease found primarily among black men who shave.
More than 50 percent of Afro-American males suffer from the disease. Few whites experience it. The recommended cure is to grovw a beard. For that, you can lose your job, even today.
The malay first became a public issue during the Vietnam War when black soldiers complained of it. Recently, it has become the subject of civil suits. But no one has led an organized information compaign until Alexander came along.
Alexander, 36, first studied PFB in medical school. But he never had it, and he didn't recognize it as a large-scale social problem until he worked as an Army dermatologist in Okinawa in the early '70s.
"I was in charge of the dermatologic care for 80,000 personnel -- military and dependents," Alexander says."And I ran into the problem immediately. Sometimes it caused lots of racial turmoil. It was embarrassing, even humiliating, for senior officers and NCOs to single out soldiers who had permission to wear a beard.
"If a guy got a profile (written statement from a physician outlining the patients's condition), that was just the beginning of his trouble. His commanding officers would put a lot of pressure on him -- give him extra duty, single him out for insubordination.
"I saw black officers with PFB at a rate equal to that of lower-ranking personnel. But they wouldn't come in for treatment. They tought a profile was the kiss of death for their careers."
In 1973, beards were allowed at Okinawa. But the commanding general of the installation still blocked a soldier's re-enlistment because he wore a beard, even after a briefing from Alexander.
"I felt there was nothing else to do but go public," recalls Alexander, who, at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, looks like a pro football cornerback.
First he went on a radio talk show. Scores of people called in.The commanding general became so enraged that he tried to have Alexander removed from his position. He settled for a written reprimand.
Undaunted, Alexander took the results of PFB surveys to the largely black National Medical Association, which passed a resolution recommending that the military allow razor bump victims to grow beards. The American Academy of Dermatology subsequently passed a similar resolution.
Alexander didn't stop crusading. He wrote, lectured and conducted studies.
He co-founded the PFB Project, and advocacy organization set up to assist PFB victims.
Most recently he was the econsultant in a case the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won against Greyhound Bus Lines in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. The suit was filed on behalf of Jeffrey Ferguson, a Philadelphia ticket agent Greyhound fired after he refused to shave off his beard.
The judge ruled that Greyhound was violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ferguson, 28, was reinstated and awarded $18,000 in back wages and damages. Greyhound has appealed.
Ferguson's case is not unlike those of many PFB victims. He went through three years of college and summer jobs before discovering he had the disease. He found out once he started shaving regularly, which was a requirement for the ticket agent job.
The more he shaved, the worse his skin became. PFB is found only in people with curly or kinky hair. It occurs when sharp tips of recently shaved hair curl back and penetrate the skin. This often causes an inflammatory skin reaction.
Continued shaving can bring on disfiguring scar tissue that never heals. Some PFB victims even find it painful to put their faces on pillows.
Instead of growing beard, some PFB sufferers use depilatories. But the result is raw, tender skin. Also many depilatories smell like rotten eggs. "Every time my wife and I invite someone over, I have to shave in the morning so we can air out the apartment," says librarian Raymond hicks.
Remington is manufacturing the "black man's shaver," an electric razor that Alexander says is no help against PFB. He has helped the American Safety Razor Co. developed a blade with a serrated foil guard that cuts hair but does not shave closedly. The kit, available in some Washington area drugstores, comes with a brush to raise the beard.
No one knows when men started shaving. It had become a custom in the earliest known Egyptian dynasties, about 7,000 years ago, says Russell B. Adams Jr. in his biogrpahy of King C. Gillette, founder of the razor company.At that time, men used flint razors. A smooth head and face deprived opponents of hair to grip.
That tactical idea persists in current military thinking. The marines do not allow beards. Any Marine suffering from severe PFB is transferred to the Navy, which allows beards, or released.
The Army and Air Force allow PFB victims to wear beards, but Alexander says the policies vary among installations. Some servicemen, says the dermatologist, have been imprisoned for growing beards.
The civilian picture is just as spotty. The Ferguson case was a local ruling and did not establish a broad precedent. Before the Ferguson ruling, a Safeway store in Hampton, Va., fired stock clerk Andrew Woods for growing a beard. He sued and lost.
The next stop, EEOC lawyers say, is to take on a company with a national policy against beards and establish a general legal precedent.
Meanwhile, Alexander continues to receive phone calls from men in the military, prison or civilian life asking about PFB treatment.
His wife, Leslie, a medical and legal secretary, helps, he says, with her insider's knowledge.
"I'd like to host a national conference on PFB," he says. "I'm very concerned about the rights of black people. What's so weird about wearing a beard? The bottom line is all very, very silly."