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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.