National Public Radio’s StoryCorps segment caught my attention as I was driving to work this morning. It was an interview with Francois Clemmons who played the role of Officer Clemmons on the long-running children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (MRN). I rarely watched MRN as a kid so I wasn’t even aware that Clemmons was black. He said that he was initially uncomfortable with the role because, as a kid growing up in a ghetto community, he had developed negative perceptions about the police. He didn’t believe that that Officer Clemmons could have a positive effect.
Clemmons role took on important symbolism in an MRN episode that was aired in the throes of the civil rights movement in 1969. In the episode Rogers, who was white, had his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day. He invited Clemmons to join him. Clemmons stated, “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.” To anyone watching the show during that time when public pools in some parts of the country did not allow whites and blacks to swim together, the scene was a powerful declaration for racial equality and integration.
Clemmons said of Rogers, “I think he was making a very strong statement. That was his way. I was still not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood and in the real world, but I think I was proven wrong.”
Teaching is a leadership practice that communicates leaders’ values to those they are leading. Most of the time this type of teaching is not done through formal presentations or classes. Instead it happens in conversations and symbolic acts. In that MRN episode in 1969, Fred Rogers and Francois Clemmons powerfully communicated an important and countercultural message to the children of America. On that day they became leaders teaching the values they held to those who were following them.