Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons: It is complicated

On May 8, 1969, Mr. Fred Rogers did something brave, compassionate, and important.

He asked the African American Police Officer on his show Francois Clemmons to take off his shoes, and join him to soak his hot and tired feet in Mr. Rogers’ small swimming pool.

This was the America of 1969, where many communities in all parts of the country had laws against the sharing of swimming spaces between black and white people. Ignorant folks believed that if a white person joined in water with a black person, they would like catch a terrible disease.

Mr. Rogers was teaching his large and mostly young audience to be better than that. To lead with compassion, kindness, and just plain common sense. He would surely lose viewers because of this.

Bravo sir, bravo!

If only the story ended there.  

You see, Officer Clemmons was homosexual. When Mr. Rogers learned that Francois Cleemons was spotted in a gay bar, he confronted him and said “I don’t personally have a problem with it, but you can’t be openly gay and be a part of the neighborhood.”

In fact, Mr. Rogers encouraged Clemmons to marry a woman, so no one would suspect the truth. He did, although it didn’t last long.

So, for his 25 years on the show Officer Clemmons had to hide who he was. Mr. Rogers pressured him to live a lie.


So…how do you feel about Mr. Rogers when you know the complete story? Do you focus only on the great thing he did by welcoming Officer Clemmons into his pool, or the terrible action of forcing him to hide who he really loved.

Or…perhaps your brain and heart are big enough to do both, like saying something to the effect of “Mr. Rogers was a good man who did a lot of great things…..but I wish he could have done better.”

We don’t have to have it all one way or another.  
People are complicated, and so is history. We can still learn from all of it.

History is always ready to teach those willing to listen.

Our job is to learn about the good, bad, the complicated…….and do better when it is our turn.

Follow the Unfinished Pyramid on twitter at UnfinishedPyr

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