After he learned that the Missouri chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was impersonating him in order to spread racist messages to kids, Mr. Rogers took them on — and won.
Fred Rogers was the beloved creator and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a late ’60s television program for kids that ran a stunning 31 seasons. His soft-spoken demeanor, cardigan-and-socks attire, and lessons in compassion turned him into the nation’s father figure.
Despite his fuzzy-warm image, however, Mr. Rogers was far from a pushover.
In 1990, Mr. Rogers sued the Ku Klux Klan after the white supremacist organization used his voice and the effects of his show to spread racist ideologies on one of their hotlines.
This is the little-known story of the time Mr. Rogers took on the KKK — and won.
Mr. Rogers Embraced Anti-Racism On His Show
Mr. Rogers was born Fred McFeely Rogers on March 20, 1928, in the town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Dubbed “the cradle of football,” Latrobe is about 40 miles outside Pittsburgh and also boasts golf legend Arnold Palmer as a fellow native son.
Mr. Rogers’ calm onscreen persona belied the difficulties he faced as a child. Born with asthma and bullied for his weight, a young Mr. Rogers found solace in music and puppets. But Rogers believed that his childhood traumas were defining moments in his life that shaped him into the empathetic and accepting adult he would later become.
After working briefly at NBC, Mr. Rogers was hired to write and produce the show The Children’s Corner with Josie Carey on WQED-TV, the public television station in Pittsburgh. It was here that his childhood love of puppets was first integrated into his television work.
In 1966, Mister Rogers secured his own show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). His calming on-screen presence and his show’s unorthodox yet gentle approach to educating children quickly made it a success. Two years after its debut on PBS Pittsburgh, the regional show was aired nationwide on PBS.
Over the course of the show’s 33 years, which made it one of the longest-running television shows in United States history, Mr. Rogers, his band of puppet friends, and human experts taught children how to deal with issues ranging from recycling to racism.
One of the most memorable episodes he did was in 1969, when Mr. Rogers and his guest star Officer Clemmons, played by Black actor François Clemmons, soaked their feet together in a kiddie pool.
It was a simple gesture, but at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement and only a year after Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, it sent a clear message of tolerance to children the nation over.
“Around the country, they didn’t want Black people to come and swim in their swimming pools, and Fred said that is absolutely ridiculous,” Clemmons recalled in the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? “My being on the program was a statement for Fred.”
With Mr. Rogers’ strong views on racial equality, it’s no surprise that he didn’t hesitate to go up against the Ku Klux Klan when they started mixing racism with his beloved show.
Mr. Rogers Takes On The Ku Klux Klan
In 1990, the Missouri Knights of the Ku Klux Klan distributed a phone number to children that was linked to a recorded message impersonating Mr. Rogers’ voice.
The messages varied, but they were all equally bigoted. In one message, the impersonator points out a Black child on the playground and then calls him a racial slur and “drug pusher.” The recording ended with the Klan lynching the child.
Another message, also recorded in Mr. Rogers’ fake voice, went after the gay community and declared that “AIDS was divine retribution.”
After the hateful hotline came to light, community groups and leaders in the city of Independence, Missouri, banded together to get to the bottom of it. They discovered that the same number had previously been used to promote the racist agenda of the Missouri Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Almost immediately, Mr. Rogers filed a lawsuit against the Ku Klux Klan and three individuals — Adam Troy Mercer, Edward E. Stephens IV, and Michael Brooks — in response to the discovery.
The messages were “of racism, white supremacy and bigotry — the antithesis of everything Rogers and Family Communications Inc. stand for,” said Cynthia E. Kernick, Mr. Rogers’ lawyer.
Rogers’ team also argued that the content of the messages, which were full of effects from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, infringed on the show’s copyright. A federal judge ruled that the KKK must stop using the messages and ordered a temporary restraining order on the recordings a day after the suit was filed.
As a result, the three men agreed to stop playing the hateful messages on the hotline and to destroy the recordings.
The lawsuit between Mr. Rogers and the KKK was certainly a bizarre episode in the show’s history. But the way in which Rogers dealt with the problem reflected his true inner values of equality and, of course, being a kind neighbor.
The Neighborhood Still Inspires
After the lawsuit, Mr. Rogers continued to educate children on tough life lessons for another decade, producing heavy yet compassionate episodes that Time referred to as “the darkest work of popular culture made for preschoolers since perhaps the Brothers Grimm.” The last episode of his beloved show aired in August 2001.
The show may not have always been perfect, but Mr. Rogers’ resolve in spreading compassion shined off-screen.
“We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood,” he said during a hearing for public TV funding in front of members of Congress. “We don’t have to bop someone over the head to make drama. We deal with such things as getting a haircut. Or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.”
Three years after the show’s end, Mr. Rogers died of stomach cancer at 74 years old.
“Children have always known Mister Rogers as their ‘television friend,’ and that relationship doesn’t change with his death,” a statement on Mr. Rogers’ website read after his passing. “Remember that Fred Rogers has always helped children know that feelings are natural and normal and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone’s life.”
Fifteen years later, Tom Hanks portrayed the beloved children’s host in the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, cementing his legacy of compassion on the silver screen as well as in our hearts.