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INTERLUDE IN CALIFORNIA: MORRIE TURNER

Morrie Turner's Wee Pals, a paean of gentle humor aimed at raising racial consciousness, started 48 years ago, and Morrie is still doing it, day-by-day. Born 1923, Turner is the first Black cartoonist to produce a nationally distributed comic strip.

In the Army Air Corps during World War II, he drew gag cartoons for base publications—crude artwork, perhaps, but getting printed was an education.

“It seemed easy then,” Turner once recalled. “Sometimes it was humor by committee, and a lot of it was so ‘in’ that nobody outside the base could understand it. But I began seeing the power in it. We could dig at some lieutenant, and nobody could do a thing about it.”

After his military service, Turner took a job as a clerk in the Oakland Police Department and freelanced cartoons to magazines. All the while, he mulled over an idea for a comic strip. Peanuts particularly engaged him, and then once when Charlie Brown appeared in a Civil War cap, Turner pondered: What if Charlie Brown were Black? And what if the cap were a Confederate cap? “Now that,” wrote Tom Carter in the Cartoon Club Newsletter, “was indeed a laugh — a child so naive he could sweep away generations of ill will with one innocent, ironic gesture.”

In 1963, Turner developed a strip about black moppets called Dinky Fellas and sold it to the Berkeley Post in his native California and to the Chicago Defender in the midwest.

Morrie Turner 1In 1964, with the advice and encouragement of Charles Schulz and comedian Dick Gregory, Turner integrated the strip and sold it as Wee Pals, which debuted February 15, 1965. The riots in Watts that summer stalled the strip: newspaper editors were leery of publishing anything that might stir up trouble. But Turner kept on, and in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luthur King, Jr., editors suddenly wanted ways to give race relations a human face. Turner’s daily lesson in tolerance was just what was needed, and sales soared.

But Turner, to this day, has mixed feelings about the sudden success: that his good fortune should have come from the death of King bothers him.

In 1974, King Features took on the syndication; these days, Creators Syndicate handles Wee Pals.

Musing about his craft, Turner added: “Doing a cartoon enables you to step outside and look at yourself. It’s like therapy, and I’ve become a better person for it.”

So, we submit, have the readers of Wee Pals.

Every minority (including the handicapped) is represented in the strip, and Turner promulgates a benevolent message of interracial harmony as well as humor. When Nipper and his racially diverse friends are picking a name for their club, they consider “Black Power,” then “Yellow Power,” then “Red Power,” finally settling on “Rainbow Power” — all colors working harmoniously. 

“That was two years before anybody ever heard of the Rainbow Coalition,” Turner said.

Turner also produces a Sunday panel about African American history called Soul Corner, and he created an animated biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Turner has received many awards for his work in cartooning and in education, including the Brotherhood Award of the National Council of Christians and Jews in 1968 and the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League Humanitarian Award in 1969. And in 1987, Turner, who probably spent more time with kids in schools than at the drawing board, was inducted into the California Public Education Hall of fame.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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