Press ahead of the 2019 release of a biopic about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood star Fred Rogers led to increased interest in his remarkable life. One story this renewed attention unearthed detailed how the children’s show purportedly tackled the hard topic of segregation with a black police officer and a kiddie pool in the late 1960s:
In 1969, when black Americans were still prevented from swimming alongside whites, Mr.Rogers decided to invite Officer Clemmons to join him and cool his feet in a pool, breaking a well-known color barrier.
That post — shared by the Facebook page “History Images” on July 24 2019 — was similar to an equally viral post shared by the page “Films For Action” in November 2015. Both posts accrued large share counts and told a similar story:
The “Films For Action” post from 2015 read:
In August, 1968, the country was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King four months earlier, and the race riots that followed on its heels. Nightly news showed burning cities, white flight, radicals and reactionaries snarling at each other across the cultural divide.
A brand new children’s show out of Pittsburgh, which had gone national the previous year, took a different approach. Mr. Roger’s [sic] Neighborhood introduced Officer Clemmons, a black police officer who was a kindly, responsible authority figure, kept his neighborhood safe, and was Mr. Roger’s [sic] equal, colleague and neighbor.
Around the first anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to join him in soaking their tired feet in a plastic wading pool. And there they were, brown feet and pasty white feet, side by side in the water. Silently, contemplatively, without comment.
25 years later, when the actor playing Officer Clemmons retired, his last scene on the show revisited that same wading pool, this time reminiscing. Officer Clemmons asked Mr. Rogers what he’d been thinking during their silent interlude a quarter century before. Fred Rogers’ answer was that he’d been thinking of the many ways people say “I love you.”
In June 2017, the image and story was also shared to Reddit’s r/pics:
The Facebook posts place the segment in the late 1960s, a time during which many people today presume that segregation had already ended.
However, in many cases integration did not extend to pools — an issue that remained contentious for years to come. In cases where public pools were legally desegregated, town after town in the American South “filled their pools with dirt, cemented them up, sometimes even bulldozed them … [since] desegregation meant equal access to public goods, then floor line equality — where nobody had access to anything — was seen as the preferable path.”
An ensuing deficit of pools led to privatized segregation of swimming facilities which extended well into the 1970s:
As public pools were drained, [Montgomery, Alabama] sidestepped new laws by immediately enacting a secret plan it had entered into with a formerly small organization – the town’s local YMCA.
The YMCA, a non-public institution that was still able to create segregated chapters and all-white or all-black spaces, started providing services to the city’s residents where the city no longer was.
In exchange for taking up such a role, the city offered the YMCA tax exemptions, free water for its pools, free use of parks and reduced sales of property. Membership at the YMCA exploded. Although the city was one-third black at the time, only one out of every nine of its members was black, with the remaining eight white.
The YMCA went from one branch and 1,000 members in 1957 (and no pools) to 18,000 members and eight pools in 1969, including outdoor summer programs and summer swim programs, which were completely off-limits to black children.
And while the YMCA was forced to change its segregating practices in 1970 with a successful suit brought against it, the city’s YMCA deal had managed to almost perfectly emulate former public segregation practices privately.
Despite successful legal action against the segregation of pools, integration did not necessarily occur. Through the 1960s and 1970s, “a mass wave of public pool closings” inhibited the presence of fully integrated pools.
François Clemmons joined the cast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968, as controversies around racism raged across the United States. The next year, the scene shown in the Facebook posts was aired as a response to the controversies:
Initially, he was uneasy about taking on the role of Officer Clemmons, having personally had negative interactions with the police, and having witnessed the violence civil rights demonstrators had faced at the hands of law enforcement. But a scene from a 1969 episode of the show helped convince him that his role would have a positive impact on society.
During the show, Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to take a break from his work walking the beat and join him in a kiddie pool to cool his feet. As the scene concludes, in what is clearly a biblical gesture, Fred, who was also a Presbyterian minister, takes a towel and dries Officer Clemmons’ feet for him. Twenty-five years later, they reprised the scene during François’ final appearance on the show.
During the scene, Rogers spoke a line that addressed the act, as well as the possible effects of its appearance on his children’s show:
And as he was toweling off his friend, Mr. Rogers told his young viewers, “Sometimes a minute like this will really make a difference.” While on the surface, he was talking about cooling off on a hot day, Clemmons knew it went far deeper than that: “He was making a very strong statement.”
Clemmons recalled reprising the scene with Rogers in 1993:
And, in the decades he spent as part of the show, there’s one scene in particular that Clemmons remembers with great emotion. It was from an episode that aired in 1969, in which Rogers had been resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day.
“He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him,” Clemmons recalls. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”
Clemmons says the scene — which the two also revisited in their last episode together, in 1993 — touched him in a way he hadn’t expected.
A clip of the revisited scene was uploaded to Vimeo in 2015:
The segment (often referenced by the title of a song within it, “Many Ways to Say ‘I Love You'”) was significant not just for the shared use of a pool:
Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons not only shared a pool but also a towel
Rogers knew that pools continued to refuse entry to black people in 1969 and that racial tensions were rising — Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated a year earlier. So he sent a deliberate message on the May 9, 1969, episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. During the show, Rogers asked Officer Clemmons, a black police officer played by François Clemmons, if he’d like to cool his feet with Rogers in a children’s wading pool. Clemmons initially declined the invitation, noting he didn’t have a towel — but Rogers said Clemmons could share his.
The actions in episode 1065 weren’t complex: two men took off their shoes and socks, rolled up their pants and then swished their feet together in a shallow pool on a hot day. But Rogers and Clemmons demonstrated that a black man and a white one could peacefully share the water. When Clemmons had to go, he used Rogers’ towel to dry his feet, as promised. Rogers left the pool directly after Clemmons and proceeded to use the same towel. Their casual intimacy exposed the bigotry of denying black citizens access to pools, or any other place in society.