Memphis billboard implores black men to pull their pants up

A Memphis, Tenn., billboard paid for by a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, encourages young black men to pursue an education as an alternative to displaying their backsides. 

A Memphis, Tennessee billboard, put up in 2013 urging young black men to drop the practice of "sagging" their pants is still making news.

The billboard was created and paid for by a black businessman who fought “side-by-side” with Martin Luther King in the 1960s for black civil rights.

It depicts a graduate in a cap and gown on one side and on the other the back view of a youth in sagging trousers bracket the words “Show your mind. Not your behind.” Insurance agent Fred Davis spent $6,000 on what he calls in an interview, “a rather expensive personal project.”

“I put that billboard up in 2013 and it still hits a nerve,” Mr. Davis says in an interview. “The reason I did it, I had been listening to people across my city and across the country moaning and groaning about the fact that young men sag their pants and some of them real low,” he says, “But none of them were talking to the perpetrators. Nobody was speaking in the mic.”

Davis explains that the images are of black youths because, “I live in one of the largest black communities in the country, Orange Mound, it’s famous for that.” He adds that when the billboard first went up back in 2013 it received “over 200 pages of mixed comments, many of them from a racist organization threatening violence.”

Therefore, the reaction to the billboard is not new to Davis, even if the billboard is new to those who hadn’t seen it before.

“The billboard was primarily directed to this community,” he says. “That billboard was my mic to make a contrast that you really do have a choice.”

This morning when talk radio host Perri Small of Chicago's WVON addressed the issue on her popular show, the phone lines lit up with callers who were eager to weigh-in on the issue she says “is just not going away.”

“You know, black kids are not the only people who sag their pants,” says Ms. Small in an interview. “It’s now a fashion that’s crossed the border of race. When you sag your pants, that shows me that you don’t respect me as a fellow human being who doesn’t want to see your backside.”

Small says, “It does go back to prison culture [where belts are confiscated to prevent suicide]. The question is, ‘How do you respect yourself when you’re showing your backside and your boxers'.”

It also harkens back to the zoot suit wars in black culture of the early 1940s when the oversized suits were worn for both its style and as a statement of defiance. “Zoot suiters asserted themselves, at a time when fabric was being rationed for the war effort, and in the face of widespread discrimination,” according to PBS's American Experience website.

Activist Rosean Lindsey founder of HoldOn2SixGs: Six Principles of Who You Are in God, draws a similar parallel, saying in an interview, “As much as ‘pants sagging’ is connected to people in jail, this generation is unfortunately only making this decision based on persona; It shows style, power and defiance towards control.”

Mr. Lindsey thinks the billboards may get a mixed reaction, “I believe the billboard will make a lot of people in the culture offended because of the culture acceptance, however seeing the graduate on the left side to me is inspiring. Everyone has the potential to become a graduate and present themselves appropriately with their pants pulled up in this society.”

“My purpose was to address African Americans who were striving for upward mobility and needed to present an image of dignity,” Davis says. “I presided over that sanitation strike in 1968 in Memphis as the chairman of the Public Works Committee. I was beside Dr. King. He and I were side-by-side on March 28th when he made his last march. I was jailed during the protests of the '60s. I have paid my dues. And I’ve earned the right to say anything I damn please about the uplift of the black community. Now, anybody who has a problem with that, the only thing I can say is, ‘Put up your billboard.’”

Small concludes, “I think it’s a great idea [the billboard] because not everybody is going to read The Christian Science Monitor or listen to WVON, but if you live in a neighborhood where this billboard is you’re going to see it. I hope they go to every city in the country.”

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