Was Mister Rogers an Ally?

I have a confession to make: I cried when Mister Rogers passed away in 2003. Not like G-Baby is dead cried, but a young thug tear or two trickled down my face. Now, if you’re wondering who Mister Rogers is, you might be on the younger side of the spectrum and at this moment, that’s okay because, Youtube. To bring you up to speed, Mister Rogers was an older yt man who had a children’s show on PBS called “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that ran for more than 800 episodes. It’s been 50 years since MRN debuted on television in 1968 and there are a number of celebrations happening in his memory this year. Mister Rogers is on a US Postage stamp, has a biography coming out later this year, and a documentary about his life releasing on June 8th, and I am excited. I remember watching MRN on PBS all the time when I was younger and I understood many of the concepts that he discussed on the show. I liked the songs, the pace of the show, and how welcoming it felt. Mister Rogers was lit.

To be honest, I think MRN was a show that helped educate a lot of Black children during its lengthy run. From our parents to our siblings, if you talk to a good amount of Black people who grew up between 1968 and 2001, they’ll have at least one thing to say about Mister Rogers. Now, I know that everyone was born “woke”, fighting oppression out the womb and probably won’t even admit to watching MRNwhich I guess is okay. But, I however, can say that I enjoyed the show. It was one of the few times that I was consistently “exposed” to a yt person in my childhood. We didn’t have too many yt people coming down our street in New Jersey, so Mister Rogers seemed to be one of the few yt people who were accepted by most Black families.  He played a huge part in my developmental years and I’m okay with saying that. That doesn’t mean I can’t be critical and question him!

After he passed away though, I reflected on the show and realized that there was a huge lack of diversity when I watched it. I didn’t see a lot of Black or Brown bodies on the show and I often wonder where they were in relation to Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. Did he even live near Black people? Did Mister Rogers go next door to grab sugar or a honeydripper like my family did? How was race centered in the life of Mister Rogers? Was Mister Rogers an ally in the struggle during Civil Rights?

For 33 years, this yt man was tackling topics that were counterculture at times for a children’s show. Mister Rogers touched on themes such as divorce, angry feelings, disability, and even race. Interestingly enough, I did not know about the amount of racial undertones/symbols that Mister Rogers had in his show, especially in the early years of the show. For example, during the first week on air, Mister Rogers received a visit from an African-American teacher named Mrs. Saunders who came over with a group of interracial students. As I mentioned earlier, the show debuted in 1968, so you have to think about the context of the times during this year. Racial tensions were high and yt people left their respective cities in fear of the Civil Rights Movement. But here, you have a Black woman in Mister Rogers’ supposed all-white neighborhood. Mind you, Mister Rogers identified as Republican at the time and I wonder how he navigated this tension within himself. What was it like to have one foot in and one foot out during this period? He was known as an integrationist!

Two months later, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and MRN started to shift in a different direction by employing one of the few Black faces on national television when through Officer Clemmons aka Francois Clemmons. This is important because police didn’t have a positive rapport with the Black community (the more things change the more they stay the same) and Clemmons expressed his concerns to Mister Rogers who felt this image was needed during a period of racial strife. A critical moment in the show was when Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers had their feet in a pool of water that was symbolic for a number of reasons. Now in this year of Wakanda, this may not seem like such a big deal, but back then; this was definitely a symbolic gesture. By all accounts, it seems like Mister Rogers was really about loving all people including differences and no matter how many tall tales come out about him, they prove to be untrue. I don’t know if he marched in protests or stood in lines as you know everyone’s protest looks different. But, I can say that I appreciate him for challenging norms back in a hostile time and having conversations with children that might have been a bit uncomfortable coming from Big Bird over on Sesame Street.

Needless to say, I’m excited to see this documentary coming out in a few months and I’m looking forward to learning more about this man who sued the KKK for using tape-recorded phone messages that imitated Mister Rogers’ voice. If that ain’t an act of allyship, I don’t know what is.




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