Wee Pals cartoonistMorrie Turner

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A cartoonist, Turner drew illustrations in Stars and Stripes during World War II. In the early 1960s, Turner lamented to a friend that there were no comic strips with black characters. His friend — Charles Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” strip — suggested he create one. The result was “Wee Pals” — and with that strip, which debuted February 15, 1965, Turner became the first nationally syndicated black American cartoonist. Only five newspapers signed up, and they had strict requirements of what could and could not be shown — in a strip that featured children, not radical ideas.

Some of the Wee Pals.

“There were very heavy restrictions on me,” Turner remembered later. “In fact, I got behind because they rejected so many strips.” In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated — and newspapers began picking up Wee Pals: within three months, more than 100 were running the strip. Schulz created the Peanuts character “Franklin” (debuted July 31, 1968) to honor Turner; “Family Circle” cartoonist Bil Keane went further, and beat Schulz to it: in 1967, he created a black character for his panel, and named him Morrie. Turner never retired; about a hundred newspapers still run the strip, and Turner himself recently said he’s writing “my own life history in comic book form and I’m having a wonderful time remembering.” Although, he added, “some things are difficult to deal with.” Turner died January 25, at 90.

From This is True for 26 January 2014