Relations between blacks and whites are tense. Systemic racism and its deep patterns of inequality and injustice are driving protests among black folk and their white allies, demands for profound and substantive change, demands that many white Americans find terrifying. Relationships between the police and African-American communities are particularly fraught – police are seen not as allies in dealing with the crime that goes hand-in-hand with extreme poverty, but as part of the system of oppression. There is deep mistrust in both directions, and often violence, in both directions. In some places police force is used to subdue and discourage protesters, making the police seem less like servants of the people and more like guardians of an unjust status quo.
The year is 1968.
And in a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, two men are making friends. One of them is a young black man with an extraordinary voice. He dreams of becoming a professional singer. But he grew up in the ghetto and has already overcome huge odds to get this far; he isn’t even sure he can make rent next month.
The other man is white. He’s forty – the age, I like to think, when our youthful idealism and our mature pragmatism begin to find a fruitful balance. He is, in fact, an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he’s just attending church, not serving as a pastor, because he has a full-time job as a TV star. His name is Fred Rogers.
Who here has never seen Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood?… It was a children’s television show, with this man who talked to the TV as if he were talking to a child, and invited us into adventures with his puppet friends. Sing it with me, folks: “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day; since we’re together, we might as well say, Would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?”
I watched some of it, as a child. In my teens and young adulthood, Mr. Rogers was punchline. We made a joke of his weird puppets, his gentle voice and careful words, his cardigans, his deliberateness, his overwhelming kindness.
But sometime along the road, we all started to get it. Maybe it was his death in 2003 that finally made us all re-assess. Maybe it’s the quotations that circulate on Facebook. Something made us all take a better look and realize that Fred Rogers was the real thing, an honest-to-God saint walking among us, preaching basic human decency on syndicated television, no less.
So. Back to 1968. Fred Rogers hears this young man, Francois Clemmons, sing at church. They become friends. And Mr. Rogers asks Clemmons to come on his show. He said, “I have this idea. You could be a police officer.” Clemmons was not enthusiastic. Where he came from, the cops were not friendly neighbors. In a recent StoryCorps interview, he said, “Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people [at that time]. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”
Still – there was the rent to pay. Clemmons eventually said yes. He would serve as Officer Clemmons in occasional appearances on the show for 25 years – while living out his dream of being a professional singer.
Reminiscing about his years on the show, Clemmons recalled a particular scene early on, in an episode that aired in 1969. Rogers was sitting in his back yard resting his feet in a plastic wading pool, as relief on a hot summer day. Officer Clemmons stopped by, and Rogers invited him to come rest his feet in the water too, which he did. You can find a photo online, these two grown men sitting next to each other with their shoes and socks off and their pant legs rolled up and their feet in this wading pool. It’s the sweetest, dorkiest thing. And – it was kind of radical.
The first interracial kiss on television was in a Star Trek episode in 1968, just a year earlier. White flesh and black flesh sharing space was still a big deal. (It still is, sometimes, some places, in America; let’s not kid ourselves.) During the 1950s, groups of black and white folks together had worked to integrate Pittsburgh’s public pools, in a united effort supported by the NAACP, the Urban League of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Presbytery – the church jurisdiction that ordained Fred Rogers in 1962. Still, as late as 1962, a city pool in Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed, had a sign outside saying “No dogs or niggers allowed.”
So this kiddie pool in Mr. Rogers’ TV back yard, with black feet and white feet in the same water – that, even that, would have pushed some folks’ buttons.
And then it was time for Officer Clemmons to get on with his children’s television show police officer duties. So Fred Rogers got down on his knees with a towel and dried Clemmons’ feet. One a time. I haven’t found footage, but I’m sure he did it with his usual deliberateness and gentleness.
Recalling the scene, Clemmons used the word “icon.” An icon: a holy image that shows us something about the divine, in visual form. Clemmons says, “I think [Rogers] was making a very strong statement. That was his way.”
I don’t know how much I really need to connect the dots here. There’s that word, icon, that Clemmons uses – a holy image that reveals the Divine. There’s Fred Rogers, a disciple of Jesus, actively striving to bear witness to God’s love in simple humble ways that even a child can understand, casting a black man as a friendly policeman and then kneeling to wipe his feet dry, on national TV. There’s Jesus on his knees, towel in hand, telling his friends, You need to let me do this for you. And you need to do this for one another.
In the interview, Clemmons shared another memory – an ordinary day on the set of the long-running show. Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his famous cardigan sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” Clemmons was standing around off-camera, and this time, Rogers looked right at him as he spoke. Once the cameras were off, Clemmons walked over and asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?” Rogers answered, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.”