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Tue January 28, 2014

Morrie Turner, 1923-2014: Drawing Gentle Lessons In Tolerance

Originally published on Thu January 30, 2014 11:00 am

Before Jesse Jackson debuted his vision of the Rainbow Coalition as a multiracial organization devoted to racial and economic equality, Morrie Turner envisioned Rainbow Power — and he gave it to America in the digestible form of a regular cartoon panel called Wee Pals. In it, his multiracial group of young friends discussed racism, sexism, classism and a bunch of other social problems with deft humor and juvenile frankness.

Turner died Saturday in Sacramento, Calif., at 90. The nation's first black nationally syndicated cartoonist, he had drawn a daily strip that gently enlightened America on race for almost half a century.

Ink In His Blood

Born Morris Nolton Turner, he grew up drawing cartoons in Oakland, Calif. He was the youngest of four; his mother was a nurse and his father one of the famous Pullman porters. After graduating from high school, he entered the Army Air Force, as a mechanic with the 477th Bombardment Group of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. While there, Turner drew a regular comic strip for Stars and Stripes, the military daily.

After the war, Turner drew while working as a clerk for the Oakland Police Department. He inked a strip for the Chicago Defender, one of the country's most prominent black papers. Turner became a full-time professional cartoonist in 1964.

At some point, Turner became friends with Charles Schultz. He's said to have asked the iconic cartoonist why there were no black characters in his beloved Peanuts strip. Shultz allegedly told Turner he should create a strip of his own with black characters. (Schultz later added the first black character, Franklin Armstrong, to the Peanuts gang in 1968). Turner liked Schultz's suggestion, and Wee Pals was born.

In the beginning, all the pals were black, but soon they became a multicultural posse, the visible manifestation of what Turner liked to call Rainbow Power. Turner told people who asked that he wanted to discuss all kinds of differences — racial, ethnic, gender, physical and mental abilities — in a positive way.

Spreading A Message Of Tolerance

In 1965, the Wee Pals strip was syndicated and ran in five big newspapers across the country. Following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, Wee Pals quickly spread to more than 100 newspapers, as the issue of race became more widely discussed. Rick Newcombe, founder of Creators Syndicate, believes about 2 million people now read Wee Pals in papers and online. "His impact was enormous," Newcombe told The Sacramento Bee.

Turner continued to be widely read even as the country began to become more racially polarized. He was not afraid to say what he thought or be considered more conservative than some of his more politically edgy friends and colleagues. (One panel during the black power era showed a stern father telling his Afro-wearing son, "It's time to talk about Job Power.") His more pointed cartoons about race relations were reserved for black magazines like Ebony and Black World.

By the early 1970s, Wee Pals made it onto the small screen as a Saturday morning cartoon called Kid Power. The messages of tolerance and friendship were broadcast loud and clear for its young viewers.

Turner drew a Wee Pals cartoon for every day of the week, right up until his death. Wee Pals would have celebrated its 49th anniversary next month.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Morrie Turner, the first African-American cartoonist to be syndicated, has died of natural causes. He was 90 years old. His "Wee Pals" comic strip has run for nearly half a century. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Morrie Turner could hardly remember a time when he wasn't drawing. Born in 1923, Turner grew up in Oakland, California. He drew through elementary school and high school and into the Army Air Force, where he contributed to the military daily Stars and Stripes during World War II. After the Army, Turner worked as a clerk for the Oakland Police Department and kept drawing. His cartoons began to show up in mainstream magazines and in the Black Press. Turner told KCRA-TV a few years ago that he wanted to avoid being dismissed because of his race.

MORRIE TURNER: One of the things I had to do was to keep it a big secret, who I was.

BATES: Eventually, he earned enough from his art that he quit his day job and cartooned full time. His comic strip "Wee Pals" debuted in 1965. It featured a posse of youngsters in all colors, sizes, genders, and abilities, whose sharp social observations were tempered with humor. At first, it was slow going. Turner showed up in just a few newspapers. But the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 changed everything, something Turner remained ambivalent about for life.

TURNER: Suddenly, everybody was interested in me and you can imagine how I felt. I mean, I'm benefiting by a hero of mine. It's kind of a bittersweet experience.

BATES: Rick Newcombe, Turner's syndicator, said Turner's "Wee Pals" was exactly in sync with Dr. King's message of racial tolerance.

RICK NEWCOMBE: In his personality, which came through in the comic strip, he was just a warm and loving human being. And he really did not understand hatred or racial prejudice. It just made no sense to him.

BATES: Morrie Turner continued to preach his message of inclusiveness through his strip, which he inked seven days a week until his death on Saturday.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.