Erika Harold has dealt with worse bullies than these. Growing up
in Urbana, Ill., she was harassed by fellow students to the point where her
entire family felt under siege. A box of eggs was lobbed through her window,
the electric line to the house was cut and, at one point, a number of
students told her they were planning to pool their money so that they could
buy a gun and shoot her.
Harold today holds the title Miss America. She is of mixed
ethnicity, black and American Indian. The majority at the high school she
attended was white. But to this day, she isn't sure why she was singled out
for abuse. An assistant principal suggested (incredibly) that she try being
Not likely. Officials of the Miss America pageant are now
learning what that assistant principal discovered about Erika Harold -- she
doesn't scare easy. More on that in a moment.
Harold is unusual in many ways. How many previous Miss Americas
put off Harvard Law School for one year in order to serve out their "reign"?
But not the least of her outstanding traits is solid integrity and
commitment to certain principles. She earned fame in Illinois for her role
as spokesman for Project Reality, a group promoting sexual abstinence, and
elected to make that her "platform" in her bid to become Miss Illinois. But
when the time came to compete in the Miss America pageant, state officials
changed it to "teen violence prevention."
These "platforms" are obviously not worth much. But they are
delicate barometers of social mores. The Illinois folks clearly understood
that teen violence prevention is much less controversial than abstinence
education. Still, as Harold saw it, the two are linked. "I think that if a
young person is engaged in a promiscuous lifestyle, it makes them vulnerable
to other risk factors," she told The Washington Times.
But can you say that as Miss America in 2002?
Apparently not. Fuming before a press conference last week,
Harold said she had been told by Miss America Pageant officials
not to talk about abstinence and to stick to teen violence
prevention only. "Quite frankly," she told The Washington Times" ... there
are pressures from some sides not to promote (abstinence)." But, said the
confident 22-year-old, "I will not be bullied."
"Bravo," says Elayne Bennett, president of the Best Friends
Foundation, a Washington, D.C.- based abstinence program for girls. "She is
delivering a message that young girls are hungry for, and they respond to
it. Who better than the beautiful, accomplished Miss America to deliver this
message to impressionable girls? And she is dead-on about the link to
violence. At Best Friends, because we offer girls the tools to 'say no' and
instill self-respect, we've prevented six cases of sexual violence. The
girls are told not to keep those kinds of things secret." Best Friends has
also prevented countless teen pregnancies, abortions, drunk-driving deaths
and other violence through its message of abstinence from sex, drugs and
For years, the Miss America Pageant was so conservative that its
crowned queen was not even permitted to be alone in a room with a man. That
conservatism is still evident, though now it is in service to quite
different standards. Today it is forbidden to promote the very values the
pageant once insisted upon -- and it is Harold who represents the new
Miss America officials will no doubt protest that Harold ran on
a teen violence prevention platform and is now violating the rules by
changing her message. But let's be serious: If she modified her speeches to
include the importance of raising awareness about violence against
homosexuals, would she be silenced by the powers that be?
Reflecting on her years as a spokesman for Project Reality,
Harold said, "I would hate to think that there are kids ... who now wonder,
'Did I make the right decision ... if that person who inspired me to do it
no longer is willing to share that commitment on the national stage?'"
With intelligence, grace under pressure and dignity, Erika
Harold transcended the bullies who tried to intimidate her in high school.
She'll need all of those qualities to withstand the pressure on her now. As
a cultural conservative, she's once again a despised minority.