Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began airing in the 1960s and continued in syndication until 2006 (his legacy continues with PBS’s animated series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood). The creator and host of the show, Fred Rogers, is well known. Less well known are his radical political positions. A recent book by Michael Long, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers (Westminster John Knox, 2015) explores some of these themes.
First, Rogers was a firm pacifist. His show began in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, and he shared his anti-war
beliefs in the very first week. In the 1980s he vehemently opposed the nuclear arms race; a war breaks out in Season 14 (1983) in the Neighborhood of Make Believe between King Friday XIII and the village of Southwood. Though the conflict was resolved, these episodes were so dark that PBS pulled them from the rotation of re-runs in later years.
Second, Rogers was a determined, if subtle, integrationist. Soon after King’s assassination in 1968, Rogers introduced Officer Clemmons, a black police officer brought in to keep order and stability in the Neighborhood. In one scene, Rogers and Clemmons are shown sitting side by side and soaking their feet together in a swimming pool. Rogers then grabs a towel and dries Clemmons feet in an unmistakable imitation of Jesus’ footwashing (Watch the scene, with commentary by Clemmons here.)
Rogers’ radical politics grew directly out of his Christian faith. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. On lunch hour between takes, he would sneak out and study theology at nearby Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Rogers’ commitment to the nonviolent, reconciling way of Jesus was uncompromising, and led him to confront the Powers (i.e., Congress, the Media, and Pop Culture) at various times; yet throughout his public and private life he maintained a disarming, child-like love for the world. Saint Fred, anyone?