As protests against racial injustice continue around the world this week following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, people are remembering beloved TV icon Fred Rogers for how he powerfully championed racial equality.
Amidst the unrest, social media users are recalling two poignant scenes from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which the beloved actor took a stand against racism by doing what he did best: simply being a good neighbor.
Both scenes show Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons, played by black actor François Clemmons, soaking their feet together in a wading pool on a hot day.
When the first scene aired in 1969, the U.S. was in the thick of civil rights unrest over swimming pool segregation policies. A black man and a white man sharing a pool was completely out of the norm.
“They didn’t want black people to come and swim in their swimming pools, and Fred said, ‘That is absolutely ridiculous,'” Clemmons said in the 2018 documentary about the show, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”.
In the now iconic scene, Rogers is spraying his feet in a wading pool when Officer Clemmons stops by and Rogers asks him to join. Clemmons initially declines saying he doesn’t have a towel, to which Rogers says that he’ll share his.
“I think he was making a very strong statement,” Clemmons said. “That was his way.”
With pure class and just two simple gestures, Fred Rogers used his platform to champion racial equality and shut down all other thoughts of anything but.
“My God, those were powerful words,” Clemmons told public radio outlet WBUR last month. “It was transformative to sit there with him, thinking to myself, ‘Oh, something wonderful is happening here. This is not what it looks like. It’s much bigger.'”
And bigger it was.
When Clemmons retired from the show in 1993, the pair revisited that iconic wading pool and recreated the scene that touched so many.
In his memoir released last month, Clemmons recalls the moment he asked Rogers what he was thinking about during their moment of silence 25 years prior. Rogers told him he was thinking of the many ways people say “I love you.”
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In 1969, around the first anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, Mr. Rogers asked Officer Clemmons to join him and soak their feet together in a pool of water on a hot day. Their feet stood side by side in a plastic wading pool and both men sat silently, contemplating without a word. Then Mr. Rogers proceeded to help Officer Clemmons dry his feet. Just a few years before, many public pools were off limits to black Americans. François Clemmons talks about when he started to see Mr. Rogers as a father figure: “On April 4, after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. That was a tremendous blow to me personally and politically and emotionally. My world was absolutely shattered. And I was living in what they call Schenley Heights in Pittsburgh, a black bougie neighborhood…When April 4 came and Dr. King was assassinated, they were burning down the Hill District [a historically black neighborhood in Pittsburgh], which was six, seven blocks from [me]. I had only been there eight or nine months, and I was terrified of what was going to happen. I remember Fred Rogers called me and said, ‘Franc, what are you doing? How are you doing?’ He knew where I lived. And at one point he said, ‘We’re concerned about your safety. We don’t like that you’re over there. I’m coming to get you’…I never had someone express that kind of deep sense of protection for me…and that experience drew Fred and me really, really close. I thought, Well, this is the real thing right here.” 25 years later, when Officer Clemmons retired, his last scene on the show revisited the same plastic wading pool. Officer Clemmons asked Mr. Rogers what he had been thinking about during their moment of silence a quarter century before. Mr. Rogers told him he was thinking of the many ways people say “I love you.” Source: Officer Clemmons: A Memoir (2020) by François Clemmons
As I read about his powerful stand against racism, I can’t help but be reminded of a similar scene that played out in the Bible — the one where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.
Both tell the story of compassion and friendship, while completely shattering societal norms.
So as we search for the “right” words to say today, or the “right” thing to do when it comes to writing a new history for our country, may we all take a page out of Fred Rogers’ book. Kindness is king, and there is simply no room for anything but.