As an ordained Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers practiced a progressive style of spiritualism that found him at odds with conservative corners of his viewing audience.
During his career, Rogers taped public-service announcements that helped children deal with processing news of war and tragedies. He also spoke in defense of the poor by portraying parents who couldn’t afford all that their children wanted or needed as hard-working people doing the best they could. He even advocated for legislation that would allow at least one parent in a military family to remain with his or her children rather than be deployed.
Along the way, his actions occasionally made a seismic impact.
Discussing RFK’s assination (June 7, 1968)
This aired two days after Robert F. Kennedy was murdered by Sirhan Sirhan, and coming on the heels of Martin Luther King, Jr. being gunned down a couple of months prior, Rogers was concerned about the impact all the graphic news coverage might have on children. While the host was understandably uncomfortable and fidgety in addressing such a severe topic, he didn’t shy away from how children might react to this news by play-acting what they heard adults discussing or what they may have seen on television or newspapers.
One of the most moving segments was when the puppet Daniel Tiger asked Lady Aberlin, “What does assassination mean?,” and she responds that he must be hearing that word a lot lately. When she explains that it means “somebody got killed in a surprising way,” Daniel expresses his displeasure that people are talking about it too much. Aberlin then responds that people talk about things that make them feel sad or scared.
This episode is right up there with the time Big Bird found out that Mr. Hooper died.
Saving PBS (May 1, 1969)
Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications to support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The chairman of the subcommittee, Rhode Island Senator John. O. Pastore, was keen on slashing the PBS budget and had been impatiently dismissing a number of speakers who came to plead a case on behalf of the beleaguered channel.
For six minutes, Rogers spoke of the need for social and emotional education that public television provided and how alternative television programming like his Neighborhood helped encourage children to become happy and productive citizens, sometimes opposing less positive messages in the media and in popular culture. He even recited the lyrics to one of his songs to Pastore.
The chairman admitted that the testimony had given him goosebumps and stated, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.” The subsequent congressional appropriation, for 1971, increased PBS funding from $9 million to $22 million.
Addressing 9/11 (September 11, 2002)
On the first anniversary of 9/11 in 2002, Rogers recorded a message for parents and those who care for young children. In the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, it was revealed that he had a difficult time finding a way to address this horrific event. Yet, he soldiered on and touched on the importance of finding healthy ways to help children deal with their feelings in ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else while helping to make the world a safer and better place.
Given how confusing images from events like this can confuse young children, he said it’s important to keep in mind that these images might be too graphic and that parents, family members and people they don’t even know are working hard to keep them safe. Turning off the television, being open and honest and listening as well as talking are the best ways to weather something like 9/11.
Lastly, he said it’s okay for children to feel sad, scared and angry, as long as they don’t hurt themselves or others. In this way, they’re being given useful tools that will serve and help them to become the world’s future helpers.