Born to Herbert and Euzsenie Turat Harrington in Valhalla, New York, Harrington was the oldest of five children. He began cartooning to vent his frustrations about a viciously racist sixth grade teacher and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1929. Immersing himself in the Harlem Renaissance, Harrington found employment when Ted Poston, city editor for the Amsterdam News became aware of Harrington’s already considerable skills as a cartoonist and political satirist.
In 1935, Harrington created Dark Laughter, a regular single panel cartoon, for that publication. The strip was later retitled Bootsie, after its most famous character, an ordinary African American dealing with racism in the U.S. Harrington described him as “a jolly, rather well-fed but soulful character.” During this period, Harrington enrolled in Fine Arts at Yale University to complete his degree, but could not finish because of the United States entry into World War II.
On October 18, 1941, he started publication of Jive Gray (1941–1951), a weekly adventure comic strip about an eponymous African-American aviator; the strip went on until Harrington moved to Paris.
During World War II, the Pittsburgh Courier sent Harrington as a correspondent to Europe and North Africa. In Italy, he met Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. After the war, White hired Harrington to develop the organization’s public relations department, where he became a visible and outspoken advocate for civil rights.
In that capacity, Harrington published “Terror in Tennessee,” a controversial expose of increased lynching violence in the post-W.W. II South. Given the publicity garnered by his sensational critique, Harrington was invited to debate with U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clarkon the topic of “The Struggle for Justice as a World Force.” He confronted Clark for the U.S. government’s failure to curb lynching and other racially motivated violence.