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When 'Mister Rogers' broke race barriers in 1969 by inviting Black cop to join him in the pool

Fred Rogers invited 'Officer Clemmons' to wash his feet alongside him in a wading pool at the height of civil unrest.

When 'Mister Rogers' broke race barriers in 1969 by inviting Black cop to join him in the pool
Image source: Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood/PBS

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is a show that resonated with kids, and many adults, throughout America. Fred Rogers became synonymous with kindness, empathy, and love. His messages of peace and love from his shows still hold a powerful place in the minds of people who watched the series as kids. Rogers never shied away from cutting through prejudices and politics, especially if it meant reaching out to people and sharing the message of love and kindness. One of the most important scenes to air on his show came in 1969 when "Mister Rogers" asked a Black police officer to join him in the pool. The scene was aired at a time when the country was raging from civil unrest over pool segregation policies in America, reported TODAY. 

Fred Rogers, the host of the children's television series, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," rests his arms on a small trolley in this promotional portrait from the 1980's. (Photo by Family Communications Inc./Getty Images)


Rogers took a bold stance when he asked Officer Clemmons, played by black actor François Clemmons, to cool his feet together in a wading pool together. It was a powerful moment of television. "They didn't want black people to come and swim in their swimming pools," Clemmons wrote in his memoir later. "That is absolutely ridiculous," Clemmons recalled Fred Rogers' response in a 2018 documentary about the show titled 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'


In the show, Officer Clemmons is shown as passing by as Mister Rogers is about to spray water on his feet in a wading pool. Mister Rogers invites him to join him in the pool to cool off their feet. Officer Clemmons initially hesitates, saying that he doesn't have a towel, to which Mister Roger responds, 'you can use mine,' before holding out a blue towel. Officer Clemmons then takes off his shoes and Mister Rogers sprays water on Officer Clemmons' feet as well. What seemed like a scene of friendship was actually in many ways a revolutionary act on television.



François Clemmons was aware of what was unfolding. He recalled them in an interview with WBUR. "My God, those were powerful words. 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,'" he said. Clemmons was also fortunate to see how it brought about change in people's perceptions and views.  "Many people, as I've traveled around the country, share with me what that particular moment meant to them because he was telling them, 'You cannot be a racist.' And one guy ... I'll never forget, said to me, ‘When that program came on, we were actually discussing the fact that black people were inferior. And Mister Rogers cut right through it.' He said essentially that scene ended that argument."



In the same year that it was aired, Supreme Court ruled that pools could not be segregated by race. Clemmons believes the scene made "a very strong statement" by showing his "brown skin in the tub with (Rogers') white skin as two friends." Clemmons said he was always apprehensive about playing a police officer especially considering the Black community's persecution at the hands of cops. "I grew up in the ghetto, and I did not have a positive opinion of police officers," he said. "Policemen were siccing dogs and water hoses on people, and I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all." But, he believes it was worth it in the end. "I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood and the real-world neighborhood," he said, before adding, "But I think I was proven wrong."


Both François Clemmons and Fred Rogers would repeat the scene again 24 years later in 1993. When the clip resurfaced recently, Twitter users couldn't help but marvel at the boldness of a kid's show. "Mr. Rogers ... (broke) the color barrier live on television," said one person. Actor Brittany Snow shared a photo of the scene from 1993 and wrote, "Disagreeing with Mr. Rogers is like hating puppies, laughing & calorie-free ice cream."


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