How Fred Rogers and François Clemmons led with Compassion
Following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 4, 1968 assassination, U.S. cities erupted in violent civil unrest. African Americans’ social oppression reached its tipping point, and King’s assassination dashed any remaining hope for achieving equal rights (Boissoneault, 2018). Despite President Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow laws kept many public spaces, including beaches and swimming pools, segregated (Hansan, 2011). Pittsburgh’s Hill District businesses were looted and burned amidst standoffs with the mostly-white police force (Mellon & Routh, 2018). Witnessing all of this unfold was Pittsburgh resident and children’s television host Fred Rogers.
Leading with compassion, Rogers introduced the recurring character of Officer Clemmons, a policeman portrayed by singer and actor François Clemmons, a Black male, on his public television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in August of 1968 (Long, 2015, p. 85). The program catered to young children and aired nationally on local broadcast television stations affiliated with the National Educational Television (NET) network, a precursor to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Officer Clemmons’ uniform consisted of boots, dark green jacket and pants, badge, and hat. Equally important were the semiotics not present – no visible weaponry of any kind. Characterizing an African American in a position of authority was in stark contrast to the primarily white police forces around the country that were commonly viewed as a threat to Black neighborhoods (Long, 2015).
Less than a year after the debut of Officer Clemmons, a seminal moment occurred on the May 9, 1969 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (Rogers & Fu-Ying Chen, 1969). Arriving to his television home with a small wading pool, Rogers proceeds to fill it with water to soak his bare feet. Explaining to viewers that it is a hot day, he invites Officer Clemmons, who is walking his beat, to rest his feet in the cool water. Clemmons appreciates the gesture, but does not have a towel. Without hesitation, Rogers offers him his towel and Clemmons eagerly accepts. Just as Rogers took off his shoes and rolled up his pant legs, Clemmons does the same. There is a camera angle focused solely on two sets of bare feet – one Black and one white – sharing the same water. After a few moments, Officer Clemmons thanks Mister Rogers, but tells him that he must get back to work. Rogers lends Clemmons his towel to dry off and accepts it back as Clemmons puts on his boots. Clemmons leaves and Rogers exits the pool, using the same towel to dry off his legs and feet. He then returns inside his television home with the towel draped over his shoulder to show a film of people of all ages, races, and genders participating in a variety of barefoot activities.
Television is an intimate and powerful medium that contributes to and reflects our culture. Rogers was a master of this medium. He purposefully constructs the scene using intertwining layers of semiotics concerning race, class, gender, and power; however, he makes no verbal mention of any of these with the exception of referring to Mr. Clemmons as Officer Clemmons. These intersecting power relations (intersectionality) mutually construct one another (Collins, 1998), influence social relations (Collins & Bilge, 2020), and construct our subjectivities (Nash, 2008).
We view Rogers’ significant 1969 television moment as social justice work: an intervention by strategic praxis (Collins & Bilge, 2020; Cho et. al, 2013; McCall, 2005). Leading up to this particular episode, Rogers had built a rapport with his young viewers based on respect and understanding. Frequently, he would discuss children’s fears and dreams, show them everyday processes such as visiting the doctor or getting a haircut, and promote self-care. In sum, Rogers had worked to earn the trust of his viewers.
Similarly, Rogers worked hard to strategically craft this moment and cast Clemmons for the scene (as opposed to another recurring neighborhood character) with the intent of dispelling racist myths. However, he does so in such a subtle way that the task of decoding Rogers’ intended message rests squarely on viewers’ shoulders, based on different intersecting points of their lived experience.
For one, you have a white person and Black person sharing a pool not long after African Americans were badly beaten during wade-ins at public white-only beaches in Mississippi while police turned a blind eye (Ruppert, 2019). Rogers was undoubtedly aware that Pittsburgh had their own share of historical racial issues with segregated swimming pools (Fuoco, 2001). Showing two human beings with different skin tones sharing the same water without hesitation seeks to naturalize the act as a common practice. Rogers then raises the stakes when the two share the same towel.
For the entirety of the episode, Rogers elects to place the towel over his shoulder (which he gets from his sweater closet) in place of his signature cardigan. The towel is a significant factor in Rogers’ message and identity politics as it remains on his shoulder until he carefully hangs it up in his sweater closet at the program’s close. Just as Rogers’ cardigans symbolize trust for his audience, the towel represents equality. Interestingly, Rogers uses the towel only after Clemmons leaves, which removes any doubt that Rogers only used the same towel out of perfunctory politeness when under the surveillance of Clemmons. The duration for which he wears the towel is undoubtedly designed to symbolize compassion and debunk racist myths.
The actors’ ages are also an intersecting factor as being an adult is synonymous with authority to young children. Rogers understood he and his television program may be the only constant message of care for some of his young viewers. So, showing them how he (an adult) interacted with others was vital. It is an integrationist message of care that prioritized the expression of feelings and compassion for others. When Rogers expresses care for Clemmons, he is both affirming and subverting social norms and hierarchies. For children who witness this type of behavior on a regular basis, the scene plays as natural. If the audience trusts Rogers’ regularly scheduled message of care, his interaction with Clemmons is normalized for them. Additionally, Rogers must have considered the repetitive power of reruns on NET stations that would only help further cement his message.
Late-1960s conceptions of masculinity are subverted as Rogers displays fraternal care for another man. One man offers to support the other’s revealed vulnerability and need for care. By accepting his offer, Clemmons is lowering his guard by accepting the care that Rogers provides. The two men then share in conversation where they learn about one another, further opening the door of communication to strengthen their relationship and get better acquainted.
Clemmons’ identity as a police officer is the most complex element. Rogers validates Clemmons role by acknowledging Clemmons’ need for a break. Additionally, Clemmons is in a position of authority that few African Americans possessed in 1969, yet one many also feared within Black neighborhoods. Rogers tries to naturalize both the idea of a non-white person in an authoritative position and the idea that someone is not abusive of that authority. With no gun or nightstick visible, Clemmons is clearly designated as a peace officer within the fictional television neighborhood, only to be armed with compassion, communication, and singing ability.
Rogers never once utters a word about killing, street protests, or police brutality during this episode. Rather, he uses the sight of men in a wading pool on a hot day and his persistent message of care to achieve his strategic praxis of social justice work. This episode, identified as #1065, served as the second season finale of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhoodand was the final new episode to be broadcast in the 1960s. Perhaps it was Fred Rogers’ way of dropping the proverbial microphone on a topic he cared so much about – encouraging children to express an integrationist message of care.
About the authors: Steve Voorhees, Ph.D. is a Professor of Television, Film, & New Media at Mercer County College in New Jersey where his research primarily focuses on television history, political economy of media, and audience studies.
Jonathan M. Bullinger, Ph.D. is a lecturer at SUNY Oneonta. He is the author of Reagan’s “Boys” and the Children of the Greatest Generation: U.S. World War II Memory, 1984 and Beyond (Routledge, 2020).
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