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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood -- And Our’s

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League

The world lost a wonderful man recently. Mr. Rogers died.

Fred McFeely Rogers, the creator and host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” which aired on the Public Broadcasting Service network from 1968 to 2001, died February 27 in Pittsburgh, where he lived and where he had developed the show.

One could say that Mr. Rogers’ death touched millions of people within the United States and around the globe.

But the keener truth is that it was Mr. Rogers living -- the advice he gave on how to live, and the standards he set in his own life for living -- that touched millions of people within the United States and around the world.
That was made most apparent to me by the words a colleague here at the National Urban League wrote in the hours following his death.

You see, Esther Bush, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, knew Mr. Rogers. She had “met” him first, she wrote, as a child growing up in Pittsburgh by watching the show on television.

Then, as an adult, she met him in person when she returned to Pittsburgh in 1994 to take up her duties as the head of one of the country’s most historic Urban League affiliates.

“As I prepared for our meeting,” she wrote. “I wanted to impress him, perhaps as any child wants to impress a parent or a teacher when they’re about to meet them for the first time as an adult.”

Pressed by her own mother, who operated a daycare center, she asked and got from Mr. Rogers signed photographs of him -- “enough to give to my mommy and to every child in her day care group. I was a hero, because I had brought their hero a little closer to them with personally signed photos.”

What made the meeting even more remarkable was Mr. Rogers’ subsequent use of her gifts to him: a bill of sale for a man sold as a slave; a legal document by which a slave owner granted a female slave permission to marry; and a tax bill listing a man’s property which included chickens, cows, goats, and 40 slaves.

“He brought out from his briefcase or referred to those three documents whenever he discussed the topic of slavery with a school group, or when that was a subject of a discussion he had on university campuses or in the other settings.”

“I was so impressed,” Esther went on. “He didn’t try to avoid the topic, or pretend that it was too serious a matter to discuss with children. He could see that it was important for them, too, to begin to know about and try to understand. He was truly teaching all the children.

Since that first meeting, Esther had several conversations with Mr. Rogers - “a companion, a teacher, an advisor and most of all a wonderful human being who put his own love of the wonder that exists all around us into a child’s world where children, all children, could feel that they were in their own neighborhood.”

As Esther’s words indicate, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood welcomed all the children of the world, and it celebrated in its gentle way their beauty and intelligence and potential for achievement.

The appeal of Mr. Rogers’ wisdom for me stood out all the more when I noticed, on the same day his death was announced, a news story from Houston about the end of a civil trial.

The story said that a jury had awarded more than $24 million to an African American couple, Dwayne and Maria Ross, in their suit against five White men who had burned a cross on their lawn in an integrated suburban neighborhood in June of 2000.

This cross-burning -- a symbol of the worst of the human spirit -- was a case we had covered in the February 2001 issue of our Opportunity Journal magazine. We noted that the local authorities, including the Houston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had responded quickly to the crime and within two months had arrested the suspects.

Even more importantly, shortly after the cross-burning, on July 4, in fact, 50 or so neighbors and other Houstonians gathered on the Rosses’ lawn to celebrate the best of the human spirit -- and declare that in their neighborhood that’s the spirit that would prevail.

And it has. Last week, the forewoman of the civil jury, referring to the civil award, said, “we wanted to send a big message” that violent acts of racism won’t be tolerated.

More positively, I can’t help but think they were also sending a message about what kind of neighborhoods should be supported by the full force of the law.

I think those are neighborhoods that, spiritually, look a lot like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

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