Fred Rogers, otherwise known as Mister Rogers, had an uncanny ability to connect with children. His trick was simple — he respected what kids had to say and treated them with dignity.
For more than 30 years on his television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, his otherworldly kindness was beamed into homes across the US, and viewers watched as he interacted with a small cast of puppets, neighbors, and guests.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was an expansive show that encouraged viewers to explore their imaginations, choose love over hate, and listen to other people.
Despite the show’s friendly tone, it often dealt with heavy, controversial topics. Here are five human rights issues that Rogers wasn’t afraid to champion.
Rogers was just as much an educator as he was an entertainer, and he believed deeply in the ability of television to impart life lessons. When he showed up to the US Senate subcommittee on communications on May 1, 1969, his testimony on the medium’s power to help kids grow persuaded the committee to continue funding public television.
Over the years, Rogers talked about knotty topics such as divorce, death, and depression, but he always did so with a nuance and open-mindedness that invited his audience into the discussion.
Rogers explained his approach to learning in an interview in 1999.
“When I was a senior in high school, a friend of mine taught me to fly in a piper cub, and he was so enthusiastic about flying, i know that’s why I wanted to learn,” he said. “The best teacher in the world is somebody who loves what he or she does and just loves it in front of you.”
2. Mental health
Rogers regularly said that children have emotions that are as complex and varied as adults, a view that stood in contrast to a common perception that child emotions are trivial.
While speaking with children on his show, he would help them tease out and think about their thoughts and feelings. In this way, he helped his viewers deal with their emotions. He taught them that it’s not shameful to feel sad or angry, and that you can actively sort through your emotions by listening to your mind.
As he said during senate testimony in 1969:
“I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger ― much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”
3. Racial equality
In hiring the black actor Francois Clemmons to a police officer role in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Rogers was able to promote tolerance and challenge racial prejudice.
In one pointed episode, Rogers and Clemmons bathed their feet together and then shared a towel afterwards. This was at a time when black people in the US were barred from swimming in many white-only swimming pools.
By treating Clemmons as an equal, Rogers showed his impressionable audience how the ideology of racism is forged in hate and that they can resist it by cultivating love and kindness instead.
4. Disability rights
In 1981, Rogers invited a boy with paraplegia named Jeff Erlanger to his show, where he asked him about his wheelchair and his injury. The way he asked these questions — forthright and compassionately — gave Erlanger dignity, and challenged stigmas surrounding disabilities.
Erlanger went on to become a disability rights advocate, and at an awards show in 1999, he had this to say to Mister Rogers:
“When you tell people that it’s you I like, you know that you really mean it. And tonight I want to let you know that on behalf of millions of children and grown-ups, it is you that I like.”
Rogers knew that a meaningful life is dependent on peace and he often advocated against war on his shows. Today, more than 75 million kids have their educations disrupted because of conflict or disaster.
During the Cold War, Rogers aired episodes called the “conflict series,” which explored issues like the accumulation of weapons, and the ideas that drive leaders to war in the first place.
Throughout, he showed the absurd stubbornness that underlies most conflicts. And he recalled his mother’s advice for what to do when in the midst of war.
"Look for the helpers,” Rogers’ mother said. “You will always find people who are helping.”