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Mitchell: Changing the face of Ole Miss

Homecoming Queen Courtney Pearsright is escorted by her father Commander Kerri Pearsduring halftime an NCAA college football game between Mississippi

Homecoming Queen Courtney Pearson, right, is escorted by her father Commander Kerri Pearson during halftime of an NCAA college football game between Mississippi and Aubuen in Oxford, Miss., on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. Miss Pearson is the University of Mississippi's first African-American homecoming queen.(AP Photo/Oxford Eagle, Bruce Newman) MAGS OUT, NO SALES, MANDATORY CREDIT

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Updated: November 19, 2012 3:28PM

Courtney Pearson is an unlikely Ole Miss homecoming queen.

Not too long ago her race and weight would have kept her from competing in the popularity contest.

But the role beauty and race play in homecoming competitions has changed dramatically.

And last weekend, Pearson was crowned homecoming queen at the University of Mississippi. Most people still remember that James Meredith integrated the university 50 years ago under the protection of federal marshals.

The university is making a real effort to erase that image.

In 2008, Ole Miss hosted the first presidential debate, opening the door to media scrutiny of race relations on its campus.

The university marked a year-long observance of the 50th anniversary of Meredith’s admission with activities that included a dedication of a civil rights monument and a keynote address by civil rights activist and performer Harry Belafonte.

Few would have believed that Meredith would become one of Ole Miss’ most esteemed alumni.

Actually this is a strange coincidence or divine providence.

Just weeks after the official observance ended, Pearson made history by becoming the school’s first African-American homecoming queen.

A Memphis, Tenn., native, Pearson received 1,477 votes compared to competitor Ashleigh Davis’ 1,387.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Pearson told the reporters. “Ole Miss, get ready. We just changed the face.”

Her image was carried by dozens of news outlets, including DailyVenusDiva, an online magazine for “curvy, plus size divas.”

In one swoop, Pearson did away with two long-standing traditions: that the homecoming queen is white and thin.

But homecoming queens aren’t what they used to be.

Pearson’s crowning is in keeping with a recent trend that is opening up the competition to nontraditional types.

For example, in Beaverton, Ore., students at the local high school chose a freshman, a first, with a rare form of thyroid cancer as their homecoming queen.

Social media has made it easier for outsiders to get noticed.

When students at Park Hill South High School in Kansas City, Mo., decided to nominate Allyssa Brubeck, a student with Down syndrome, as homecoming queen, “Allyssa-for-Homecoming-Queen” popped up on Facebook. “The number of ‘likes’ was approaching 1,500 in the first 24 hours of its posting,” reported the Kansas City Star online edition. “The number of hits as it was being shared passed 10,000.”

At Gull Lake High School in Gull Lake, Mich., students voted 18-year-old Alex Milan homecoming queen, another student with Down syndrome

Even a young woman who was picked by her classmates to be in the court as a cruel joke found support.

Whitney Kropp refused to let the bullies get the best of her. The sophomore showed up to participate in the festivities even though she knew she had been selected as a farce.

The community pulled behind Kropp and together they turned what was supposed to be a day of hurt into a day of inspiration.

These acts are proof that young people aren’t nearly as shallow as their parents were at that age.

Obviously, Pearson’s quest for a tiara can’t be compared to Meredith’s pursuit of an education.

But Pearson took the fight for inclusion to the next level.

She broke through a social barrier that was a relic from our ugly past.

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