March 20th marked the birthday of Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister who is best remembered for his pioneering work in children’s television as Mister Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers, who passed away from stomach cancer in 2003, was the first to acknowledge that the success of his Neighborhood was not his alone, but the result of those whose shared it with him: a chef who walks with a limp, a handyman with a penchant for jazz, a speedy courier who talks as fast as he delivers, and yes, even an operatic police officer.
When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968 on a public television station in Rogers’ native Pittsburgh, American viewers were desperate for some good news. The previous decade had brought political assassinations, the threat of the Cold War, the Sexual Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War; and television had delivered all of it right into America’s dens and sitting rooms. With this new technology, no place was safe from chaos and turmoil. No place was simply “over there”—every place was near; every threat, local; every conflict, personal. In many ways, television shaped and escalated the conflicts of the 1960s the same way that the internet shapes and escalates current ones, simultaneously expanding and shrinking our sense of community.
Over the course of thirty-one years and 865 episodes, Rogers would use his Neighborhood to show the world as it should be—a microcosm of kindness where neighbors love and support each other through difficult times of death, divorce, and danger. It was also a space where Rogers helped viewers confront their own fear and prejudices, leading them past them in his own non-threatening way. From the beginning, Rogers specifically challenged the nation’s understanding of race through his friendship—both on and off-screen—with Francois Clemmons, the Neighborhood police officer who just happened to be an African-American.
A Singing Police Officer
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Francois Clemmons was the descendent of slaves and sharecroppers; but like many other blacks, his family moved north to the industrial mid-west and he grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Clemmons remained deeply connected to his roots, though, both through the spirituals that his mother taught him and by cultivating his natural vocal talent in the church. Eventually, Clemmons pursued a career as an opera singer and was already touring when Rogers heard him perform at his home church in Pittsburgh. Soon after hearing him, Rogers invited Clemmons to appear in the Neighborhood—as a police officer.
“Fred came to me,” Clemmons recounts in a recent StoryCorps interview, “and said, ‘I have this idea…you could be a police officer.’ That kind of stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policeman were sicking police dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”
But Rogers prevailed and Clemmons joined MRN in August 1968, only four months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In doing so, Clemmons became the first African-American with a recurring role on a children’s television series. But as progressive as this was, Rogers decided to press social convention even further.
Episode 1065, which aired only a few months after Clemmons’ debut, opens in the typical manner with Rogers inviting viewers to be his neighbor; but instead of putting on his iconic cardigan, Rogers talks about how hot the day is and how nice it would be to put his feet in a pool of cold water. He moves to his front yard where he fills a small plastic pool with water and begins to soak his feet. Soon Officer Clemmons drops by for a visit and Mr. Rogers invites him to share the pool with him. Clemmons quickly accepts, rolls up his pant legs of his uniform, and places his very brown feet in the same water as Rogers’ very white feet.