Was Mister Rogers Racist? Twelve Facts About Our Favorite Neighbor

Fred Rogers, the beloved creator of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, never marched in the black civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the registered Republican was far from a street protestor, Rogers eventually became a quiet advocate of racial integration. But even as an integrationist, Rogers worked with sharp boundaries when addressing racial issues on his program. Here are twelve quick facts about Rogers and race:

1. An African American chauffeur, George Allen, drove Rogers to school during his childhood years in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Allen, who lived with and worked for the Rogers family, also taught Rogers to appreciate jazz and photography and even to fly a Piper Cub airplane.

2. As a student, Rogers chaired the Interfaith and Race Relations Committee at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Under his leadership, the committee might have joined the local NAACP's efforts to combat segregation and racial violence, but it preferred a paternalistic approach that focused instead on offering charity to all-black institutions in the community.

3. By the time Mister Rogers' Neighborhood went national in 1968, white backlash against the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, and urban violence had taken the form of "white flight." Fearful for their lives and property, white residents had fled their city neighborhoods in unprecedented numbers. Against this backdrop, the first week of MRN saw Mister Rogers enjoying a home visit from Mrs. Saunders, an African American teacher, and a small interracial group of her students. It was a simple visit with a hard-hitting message: Whites and blacks live, study, and play together in the Neighborhood.

4. Less than two months after Mrs. Saunders's visit, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and riots erupted in black neighborhoods across the nation. As televised images of the riots flooded the nation's households, Rogers began to develop a completely different image for his viewers: a startling image of a black police officer keeping everyone safe in the Neighborhood. This radical idea came to fruition in August 1968, when Francois Clemmons debuted as Officer Clemmons on MRN.

5. Before his debut, Clemmons had talked with Rogers about the riots, the state of race relations in the US, and the negative image many children had of police officers in their neighborhoods. As a child of the ghetto in Youngstown, Ohio, Clemmons had experienced some officers as corrupt authorities who dealt in bribes, so he told Rogers he was skeptical that a police officer was the best role for him. Rogers disagreed.

6. The role of Officer Clemmons took another symbolic turn in 1969, just after the first anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when Mister Rogers invited Clemmons to join him in soaking his feet in a wading pool. The four soaking feet, pasty white and light black, positioned Rogers as a thorough-going integrationist opposed to segregated swimming pools, backyards, and friendships.

7. In the late 1960s, Clemmons suggested that Rogers begin depicting interracial couples on MRN. Clemmons felt that it would be "helpful and realistic" to show him and white cast member Betty Aberlin as an interracial couple in one of the program's colorful operas. "I mentioned it several times," Clemmons recalls. "Fred ... was never hostile [to the idea]. He just never did it." Clemmons assumes Rogers was overly concerned about alienating socially conservative viewers who could not quite tolerate interracial relationships of any kind.

8. When he traveled the country for MRN-related events, Clemmons often heard viewers express their displeasure with the lack of diversity on the program. "Look at Sesame Street," he heard. The criticism was partly true. The 1969 debut of Sesame Street featured Gordon, an African American teacher sporting a hip suit and a cool beard and mustache, as the main human character in an urban neighborhood populated largely by adults and children of color. By dramatic contrast, in the first national year of MRN, all of the main human characters were white. And Clemmons was the only major character of color from 1968 to 1975.

9. In 1975, two years after Doris Davis became the first African American woman mayor of a smaller city, Rogers introduced Mayor Maggie, a character played by African American actor Maggie Stewart. Remarkably, Mayor Maggie became King Friday's political equal and enjoyed the assistance of a white underling, Associate Mayor Aber (played by the blond and blue-eyed Chuck Aber). With that radical coupling, Rogers clearly showed the growing reality that black women could indeed be professionally superior to white men.

10. After the addition of Mayor Maggie, Rogers did not add any other persons of color to the roster of major and long-term characters of MRN. Hispanic actors (for example, Tony Chiroldes) made occasional appearances, but none became a major cast member, even in the 1990s. Meanwhile, Sesame Street continued its ongoing commitment to advancing ethnic diversity in its staffing.

11. In 1990, Rogers joined his company, Family Communications, Inc., in suing the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and three men to stop them from using tape-recorded telephone messages that imitated MRN music and Rogers's voice. It was one of the few times Rogers took legal action against individuals and groups who used his popularity to advance their own agendas and causes.

12. Three years later, Clemmons made his final appearance on MRN, and in one of his last scenes he again joined Rogers at a wading pool in the front yard. This time, Rogers explained that while he was soaking his feet he'd been thinking of all the different ways people say "I love you." So, yes, there they were yet again--white and black feet, alike and yet different, reminding us once more of Rogers's conviction, however imperfectly enacted, that what matters most is a little bit of love between two people.