Skeeter Phelan’s little mistake

Last week, I watched the movie, The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel of the same name. While most movies rarely come close to capturing the heart and soul of a book, this one did. I enjoyed it.

It also made me think.

In one scene, recent college graduate and aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan is pecking away on a typewriter. Changing her mind in mid-sentence, she grabs a little bottle of liquid paper and corrects the word. The problem with the scene is that liquid paper wasn’t on the market in 1963, the year in which the movie is set. In the 1960s, correcting a typing mistake required a little pencil-like device with a white or sometimes pink “eraser” and a brush to whisk away the debris. Liquid paper, although invented, was not yet the ubiquitous corrector it would become. I was surprised and amused that the movie’s fact checkers didn’t catch that. Then I realized that they were all probably too young. After all, we are a long way from the days of manual typewriters.

The appearance of liquid paper in the middle of 1963 created the same kind of anachronism that T.H. White used in The Once and Future King. It was out of place. Unlike White’s Merlyn who lives backwards through time and can thus legitimately mismatch time and space, however, Skeeter Phelan and the moviemakers have no such excuse. They should have gotten it right.

And so should we.

If there’s one reason to study history, the present is probably as good a reason as any. Despite what some fifth grade students may think, history is far more than an academic exercise to learn what happened in the past. Understanding history is essential for understanding the present. In fact, you really can’t get the present or the future just right unless you remember the past, and especially unless you understand it. Skeeter’s little mistake is a case in point.

On a far more important scale are the great events in our history, those that changed our nation forever and for the better. Those are events in history that we should learn accurately and remember forever. We need to know what society was like in the first half of the 20th Century. In Harrisonburg, as late as the mid-1960s, the movie theatres downtown had separate white and black bathrooms, and the balconies were reserved for blacks, the mezzanines for whites.

Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marc...

The 1963 March on Washington (Image via Wikipedia)

The history of the American Civil Rights movement feels long ago. Watching the historic March on Washington through flickering black and white film reels, hearing the speeches surrounded by crowds dressed largely in suits and hats, makes it feel like we have put it in our distant past. But it is not as far away as we think.

It was not until 1971 that busing was upheld by the Supreme Court as a remedy for segregation. As late as the 1980s, some members of the Virginia General Assembly still disagreed with the principle of integration, and some Virginia school systems that defiantly closed their doors instead of integrating after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are still trying to catch up. No matter how far we move from the past, we can still touch it in small ways. Think of it as seven degrees of history.

Remembering the past, whether it’s liquid paper or civil rights, makes living today better.

This week and next the James Madison University community will put history on display when the campus celebrates the life and times of Civil Rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King. Beginning tomorrow, a series of events will commemorate the King legacy, and will include a keynote address by Calvin Mackie, Ph.D., an award winning mentor, engineering professor and motivational speaker.

To learn more about JMU’s celebration to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King visit


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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