Jack Ohman

February 1, 2014

Editorial notebook: Morrie Turner, civil rights, and cartooning

There ought to be an award in Morrie Turner’s name.

Jack Ohman

Editorial cartoonist, writer and Joe King’s alter ego

Morrie Turner, creator of the “Wee Pals” comic strip and West Sacramento resident, died last Saturday. He had a showing at The Red Dot in midtown a few weeks ago, and I went to see it. I had never met him.

He was in a wheelchair, frail but quippy at 90 and still drawing his comic strip for 40 newspapers. He signed books for all comers, and there were lots of comers. Morrie was a good friend of the late Rex Babin, my friend and predecessor. Rex often mentioned how much he enjoyed hanging out and talking with him. They were both ill. But they managed to comfort each other with arcane cartooning shop-talk.

Morrie had a fascinating and historic career. He started drawing cartoons during World War II for the 477th Bombardment Group newspaper, and created illustrations for Stars and Stripes. After the war, he drew the predecessor of “Wee Pals,” “Dinky Fellas” for the Chicago Defender. That’s intrinsically interesting, but Morrie did something that no one had done in 1965: Taking the advice of his mentor, Charles Schulz, he created “Wee Pals,” the first integrated comic strip.

Morrie only had five clients for “Wee Pals” when it launched in 1965. The theme of the strip was not just some black kids, but kids of every race and ethnicity. Morrie preached not black power but everybody power; he was a civil rights activist with a pen and ink. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Morrie’s client list jumped to more than 100 newspapers, including The Sacramento Bee. You could just hear feature editors waking up: Oh. We need something other than Blondie and talking animals in our newspaper. Morrie woke them up.

Later, “Wee Pals” became a national cartoon television program, reconfigured as “Kid Power,” on Saturday mornings. I remember as a boy of 8 watching it, and reading “Wee Pals” in the pages of the Washington Evening Star. I told Morrie this three weeks ago, and he laughed. “Man, you’re making me feel old!”

Now that he’s gone, I feel older, too. I wish I had gotten to know him better, but I am glad I got to meet him. A life lesson for everyone: Act in the moment.

Morrie won many national awards and honors for his cartoons, but he was also a great advocate for children. He was co-chair of a White House task force on children in 1970, and he appeared, pen in hand, on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He gave innumerable talks to schoolkids, was active in his church and worked tirelessly for decades to help kids and promote racial harmony.

I don’t know what specific award one would get for that, but someone should come up with one and name it after Morrie Turner.

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