The teenage girl whose baseball success provides a flimsy bridge across America's great racial divide

Out of America: Mo'ne is a black 13-year-old bringing a small ray of light against the dark backdrop of Missouri

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At last there's a good news story from America. Put aside the chaos abroad and the beheadings in Iraq, the sense of a president adrift and aloof, and the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, ripping open racial wounds that seemed to be healing. Instead, consider the feats of Mo'ne Davis.

Mo'ne is a black girl, aged 13, who hails from inner-city Philadelphia – and right now she's probably the most famous baseball player on the planet. She's on the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated; Michelle Obama has tweeted about her and every talk show in the land has tried to land her.

Baseball is a game for males, right? Not in the case of the Taney Dragons little leaguers, for whom Mo'ne is star pitcher and hitter. Little League has its own version of the World Series, for children between 11 and 13. Girls have featured in it before, but none with the impact of Mo'ne.

Ten days ago, she pitched a two-hit shut-out against an all-boys' team from Nashville – in cricket terms the rough equivalent of a bowler taking all 10 wickets without conceding a run. She's a comparative slip of a girl, 5ft 4in tall and weighing under eight stone. She might have played softball, the girls' version of baseball, where the pitcher propels underarm a slightly softer ball than the one used in real baseball, with a whirling dervish motion.

But Mo'ne throws overarm like real men do. Her fast ball clocks 70mph – not that far short of the 90mph-plus in the big leagues – while pro-team scouts drool over her super-smooth "mechanics" (or bowling action, in cricket parlance). And not just that. Her composure these past few days under the media spotlight is astonishing, as is her response to those urging her to pursue a professional baseball career. Forget it, she says; my favourite sport is basketball. In which case, watch out, LeBron James.

Most years, of course, this would have merely been another sappy, feel-good story that Americans love. But not in August 2014. Mo'ne's feats, mowing down opposition batters regardless of whether they were black, white or Hispanic, and coinciding with the rioting in Ferguson, have turned her into a racial exemplar of how the country wants to see itself – a tale of success and hope, the exact opposite of the conflict that exploded on the streets of an impoverished, dead-end suburb of St Louis.

The contrast isn't perfect. Yes, Mo'ne Davis is a black kid from the inner city – but from Philadelphia's south side, not from truly blighted North Philadelphia, a wasteland of derelict, rotting factories, deserted streets and semi-abandoned neighbourhoods. Her mother isn't a stereotypical welfare queen, but a nursing assistant, whose daughter's prowess earned Mo'ne a sponsored transfer to one of the city's foremost private schools. In other words, she was already edging into the black middle class, whose establishment and growth have been one of the great success stories of the post-segregation era.

Ferguson, on the other hand, of late has looked a place the civil rights revolution passed by. Once it was white and reasonably prosperous; today it is almost 70 per cent black, stricken with poverty and joblessness, its inhabitants smarting from a sense of resentment at their marginalisation, long since having ceased to believe that a black man in the White House could improve their lot.

Racial discrimination may have largely ended elsewhere, but not in Ferguson where, in a hangover from Jim Crow, the political establishment is white, and only three of the city's 53 police officers are black. The exact circumstances of the death of Michael Brown, shot six times by a white officer, may still be unclear. But his killing was a lighted match thrown into a can of petrol.

A semblance of calm has now returned, partly because rioting is an exhausting business, and partly thanks to the visit last week by Eric Holder, the Attorney General – the first black man to become the country's top law enforcement officer, who has made civil rights a top priority. In a town scarrred by the perceived excesses of white law enforcement, that fact surely counted for much.

So too did Holder's recalling to a largely black audience of his own humiliation and resentment when he was randomly pulled over for a search by white patrolmen – even when he was already a US attorney, serving the Department of Justice. To Ferguson's inhabitants, his experiences rang horribly true.

At first glance, polls suggest a gulf in attitudes between blacks and whites. Of the former, 80 per cent insist Brown's death raises important issues over race. Only half as many whites share that view. Two-thirds of blacks believe the police went too far, against one-third of whites surveyed. And three-quarters of blacks do not believe the federal investigation into the incident will be fair, while 52 per cent of whites do. Nothing much, you might think, has changed in the half-century since LBJ signed the civil rights act in 1964.

Look a little closer, though, into the same polls, and evidence emerges of the great strides in race relations the US has made since then. Only a minority of whites – 47 per cent – said the case was receiving more attention than it deserved. Combine the Nos and Don't Knows, and barely a third of whites are certain the police acted reasonably. And both sides agree that the police, with tanks and automatic weapons, were grotesquely overarmed.

So what a relief to turn to the likes of Mo'ne Davis, whom all America has been cheering on. Her story didn't have a perfect ending. On Thursday, the Taney Little Leaguers lost to a Chicago team called Jackie Robinson West, and were eliminated from the competition. But even defeat offers symbolic ground for optimism. Jackie Robinson – wasn't he the black player who broke the colour barrier in major league baseball in 1947, helping to pave the way for the civil rights revolution that followed?

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