As Martha Ross writes in the Contra Costa Times, cartoonist Morris “Morrie” Turner broke racial barriers in the 1960s when he became the first African-American to have a syndicated comic strip – Wee Pals – that still runs daily, despite Turner’s death this past January at the age of 90. As Ross writes, Turner “admired Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ and mulled creating a black Charlie Brown after turning to cartooning full-time in 1964. At one point, Turner asked Schulz, who was then a friend, why he didn’t have any black kids in his comic strip, and Schulz told Turner to create his own.”
Ross adds that “even though the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the mid-1960s, few papers would run Wee Pals. That changed with the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The tragic event helped Wee Pals gain nationwide acceptance. The strip began appearing in more than 100 newspapers across the United States.” Among the characters are “several African-American kids, a neighborhood bigot, some ‘Girls Libbers’ and, of course, Nipper, a boy, modeled on Turner himself, who typically wears a Civil War cap and has a dog named General Lee.”
As Greg Ehrbar writes on the website, Cartoon Research —
“Wee Pals had been in newspapers for seven years before Rankin/Bass and ABC adapted it as Kid Power for Saturday morning TV, the same season that Filmation and CBS introduced Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.
Rankin/Bass also cast young voice actors according to the ethnicity of the characters, including Donald Fullilove, who also voiced Michael Jackson for the animated R/B series, Jackson 5ive and played Goldie Wilson onscreen in the Back to the Future films. Jay Silverheels, Jr., son of the actor who played ‘Tonto’ in The Lone Ranger films and TV shows, voiced Rocky, a Native American. Also in the cast as Connie was a preteen April Winchell, now one of Hollywood’s top voice actors (as well as a writer and satirist) whose oeuvre includes Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Despicable Me 2.
Like Fat Albert, Kid Power featured songs with messages in every episode. With mainstay musical director Maury Laws on other R/B projects, Oscar-nominated composer/arranger Perry Botkin, Jr. handled the Kid Power songs and background music, partnering with Jules Bass on the tunes created for the show.”
I recently picked up a copy of the original soundtrack album at a local pawnshop, of all places. How fascinating to hear the following track, “Don’t Fake It,” 42 years after its original release and know that the “radical” premise in the song’s spoken word intro — that of an African-American elected as our nation’s chief executive and top military commander — had, indeed, come to fruition in my lifetime:
[Pssst: Click the triangle above to play “Don’t Fake It” by The Curbstones.]