My, my, how times have changed. A few decades ago, Mississippi life left writer Richard Wright so scarred that he vowed never to go back. Now we have the first black woman chosen to wear the Miss Mississippi crown.
Just three years ago, the black students at Ole Miss considered it a "victory of sorts" when they were able to get the administrators to scuttle the Confederate flag as the school symbol. Now Toni Seawright, 22, a recent graduate of Mississippi University for Women, is the new state queen.
This is the same state where, 25 years ago, Gov. Ross Barnett stood in the doorway of Ole Miss and cried "never" when James Meredith tried to enroll in the university. But in six weeks, Seawright will represent her state in the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J.
It's ironic that so many things happen simultaneously. In the mid-1970s, a black man was named "Colonel Rebel" in the highest popularity contest at the university, and a black female Ole Miss student was named one of Glamour magazine's 10 top college students.
But a Washington friend of mine, who hails from a tiny Delta town and is one of the many distinguished Mississippians who have gone north to live, tells me she is bothered by the pullback she sees there. She thinks it has filtered down from the Reagan administration, and says, "It's okay to discriminate, to tell social jokes." Yet just last November, Democratic Rep. Mike Espy became the first black from the state to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction.
Just a few months ago, I went to Mississippi for the first time since the 1960s to attend a conference at Ole Miss on how the media covered the civil rights movement. I found it ironic that the school that needed federal troops to get Meredith inside was now playing host to the same reporters whose coverage helped hasten Barnett's demise as a politician. I concluded that they wanted people to come and say, "Look how they've changed."
But while I was in Oxford, knowledgeable observers pointed out that black enrollment at Ole Miss had dropped from the 1970s and black faculty members were scarcer than hen's teeth -- which would mean that the student body had hardly changed in any fundamental way.
Yet, here comes Toni Seawright as Miss Mississippi, which may indicate that many white Mississippians have tried to make the laws work and have striven for equality of opportunity more than many of us would have imagined. But in terms of social acceptance, there has been much backsliding since the mid-1970s.
Indeed, it is progress of a sort that judges could see past her color to her talent. "There was no question in my mind . . . when she sang -- she brought the house down," said Briggs Hopson, a member of the board of directors for the Miss Mississippi pageant. "She blew the top off the house, with ovation after ovation."
But I must admit that the feminist in me rebels against beauty contests because a beauty queen is just a sex symbol and a throwback to old values many of us hoped were forever dead. Thus, it's important to remember that a black woman can be elevated to state queen but it doesn't necessarily change the deeper issues -- such as the feelings some people may have against her race. Indeed, while a beauty contest may be valuable as a way of career advancement for an individual, we have to realize its limitations as a way of advancing any broader cause.
Ironically, the period that has seen the changes in Mississippi that would pave the way for blacks such as Toni Seawright to move into middle-class success has also seen a growing and much more frustrated underclass.
This does not mean that those who admire beauty contests should not tip their hats to Seawright, but it explains why some of us will temper our enthusiasm for this latest little token of advancement with a dollop of reality.
But things really have changed. Although Richard Wright never went back home, earlier this year, his daughter returned to Mississippi and left the state with the honors Ole Miss officials never gave her daddy.