For many people, the most interesting thing about last weekend’s winner of the Miss America Pageant, Mallory Hagan, is that she lives in Brooklyn. It seemed so incongruous: a beauty queen from the epicenter of all things ironic and progressive. Newspapers have hailed her as the city’s first winner since Bess Myerson took the crown in 1945.
But, in fact, Ms. Hagan, who won the state crown in June, is not the New Yorker reporters have made her out to be. Born in Tennessee and raised in Alabama, she moved to the borough only a few years ago, to attend school.
And that, for me at least, is the more interesting part—and not only because I am the daughter of the 1961 Soil Conservation Queen of Marion and Cass Counties, Tex. Next to winning college football titles, beauty contests seem to be something young Southerners do particularly well. “The modern Southern belle,” the sportswriter Frank Deford once said, has “long been the Pageant ideal.” But why?
From 1921, when the contest began in Atlantic City, through World War II, only one woman representing a former Confederate state won the competition. Then, beginning in 1947, when a woman from Memphis earned the top honor, the fortunes of Southern contestants rose precipitously. From 1950 to 1963, seven southerners were crowned (each served the following year), including back-to-back wins by Mississippians in 1958 and 1959—though southerners made up only one-fifth of the possible winners.
These were, of course, the years when black Southerners opened a full-scale campaign against Jim Crow, prompting a bitter backlash by white Southerners. White resistance began in earnest in 1954, when the Supreme Court issued Brown v. Board of Education, its decision to desegregate public schools.
This wasn’t a coincidence. Images of white Southerners spitting on black students, and news of white lynch mobs killing children like Emmett Till, shocked the world. Other whites, many of them pro-segregation themselves but fearful of the national reaction brought on by anti-civil rights violence, understood that Southern beauty queens could serve as persuasive public relations agents, a genteel veneer to cover up the region’s unsavory behavior.
It is impossible to overstate the effect of the positive press both Miss Americas from Mississippi, Mary Ann Mobley and Lynda Mead, garnered for their state. An editor of a small-town Mississippi newspaper came to this conclusion during a 1959 trip to New York City, where an acquaintance told him that the state’s first Miss America was “worth millions in good value to Mississippi.”
At times, this good-will campaign sounded more like outright defiance. On a homecoming tour to Jackson, Miss., Ms. Mead announced that she had never apologized for her state. “And I won’t,” she insisted. “We have nothing to apologize for.”
The Southern Miss Americas of the 1950s and ‘60s embodied the Southern “way of life” and justified its defense, however strident. “The winner always carries the ideals of her city and state throughout the world,” Miss South Carolina, Marian McKnight, announced during the 1956 finals (she won the crown). She added that those of her home state were “the finest ideals there are.”
It makes sense that white Southerners would celebrate these ideals, but the rest of the nation was also complicit in the South’s Miss America reign. After all, the region’s strong showing at the pageant post-Brown coincided with the contest’s television debut, and during much of this period, the Miss America Pageant annually rated as the first- or second-most-popular show on television. In the national racial tumult of the 1950s and ‘60s, it’s likely that Americans in California and Illinois were happy to see pretty white faces on their TV screens, too.