John Wayne’s Legacy Scrutinized Amid Calls to Remove Monuments

July 3, 2020 Updated: July 7, 2020

ORANGE, Calif.—Amid nationwide protests, some activists are calling for the removal of statues and the renaming of places they say reflect a history of racism.

Most such demands across California have focused on key historical figures such as Junipero Serra, Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant, and Christopher Columbus. But in Orange County, the subject of controversy is one of the most famous actors in U.S. film history: John Wayne.

On June 26, the Democratic Party of Orange County (DPOC) announced a resolution to remove the iconic actor’s name, along with a 9-foot-tall statue of him, from the county’s airport.

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A 9-foot-tall statue of John Wayne stands at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., on June 26, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
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John Wayne and Marsha Hunt in the 1937 film “Born to the West.” (Public Domain)

The resolution cites comments Wayne made in a 1971 interview with Playboy as evidence that the actor held “white supremacist, anti-LGBT, and anti-Indigenous views.”

“Orange County is now a diverse region far different from the time when John Wayne was chosen as namesake for the airport,” the resolution reads. “The Democratic Party of Orange County condemns John Wayne’s racist and bigoted statements.”

During the wide-ranging interview, Wayne denounced communism and expressed concerns that communist ideology had penetrated the public school system.

“I wouldn’t mind if they taught my children the basic philosophy of communism, in theory, and how it works, in actuality,” Wayne said in the interview. “But I don’t want somebody like Angela Davis inculcating an enemy doctrine in my kids’ minds.”

Davis, a black activist who studied under the Marxist professor Herbert Marcuse, was active in the Communist Party USA and the Black Panthers.

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Angela Davis speaks onstage during the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21, 2017. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

After Wayne’s comments about Davis, the interviewer said Davis claimed people “who would revoke her teaching credentials on ideological grounds are actually discriminating against her because she’s black.”

The interviewer asked Wayne if he thought there was any truth in that.

“With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so,” Wayne replied. “But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks.

“I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

DPOC also took issue with the following comment from the same interview: “I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago, these people were slaves.”

“Now, I’m not condoning slavery,” Wayne went on to say. “It’s just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces, so he can’t play football with the rest of us. I will say this, though: I think any black who can compete with a white today can get a better break than a white man. I wish they’d tell me where in the world they have it better than right here in America.”

 

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John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., on June 26, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

John Wayne Airport, which is owned and operated by Orange County, was named after the Academy Award-winning actor in 1979, the year he died.

According to Deanne Thompson, manager of public affairs at John Wayne Airport, the Board of Supervisors has sole authority to change the name.

“Although there have been public discussions and media attention on this topic, the county currently has no plans to change the airport’s name or to remove the John Wayne statue,” Thompson told The Epoch Times. “But things do change, so you never know.”

Michelle Steel, chair of the board, said in a statement on June 29 that Wayne’s comments from nearly 50 years ago “are wrong and sad from someone who so many people across America hold in high regard.”

Nevertheless, she supports keeping the name John Wayne Airport.

“Wayne’s contributions to families in Southern California and across America live on to this day,” she said.

“He personally worked to assist Vietnamese refugees resettle in America, many of whom still live here in Orange County. The John Wayne Cancer Foundation’s investments in research have resulted in groundbreaking treatments and the establishment of a cancer institute in Santa Monica.

“Because of his dedication to our military and country, Mr. Wayne received both the Naval Heritage Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.”

Michael A. Moodian, a lecturer of leadership studies at Chapman University and co-author of the DPOC resolution, told The Epoch Times that Wayne offered “an insensitive statement and one that downplays a very dark aspect of American history.”

“We have a long way to go toward healing our nation, and it will require addressing systematic racism, not simply removing statues,” he said in an email. “But I argue that if we are going to name public buildings after people, these individuals at the very least should espouse the Declaration of Independence text ‘that all men [and women] are created equal.’ I do not believe Wayne demonstrated that.

“He had years to walk the statements back. To my knowledge, he never did.”

Others dispute the assertion that Wayne held white supremacist views.

“Wayne was not a racist,” Garry Wills, author of “John Wayne’s America: The Politics of Celebrity,” told The Epoch Times.

“He loved Latin Americans, and supported the Panama Canal treaty. His attitude on blacks was probably prejudiced, like that of most Americans at the time. But he did not make a public issue of it, turning a prejudice into a policy. He hated Communists of all colors and nations. He was an equal-opportunity hater only on that.”

Wills said he learned a great deal about Wayne during the course of researching his book, “interviewing many who knew him, including friends like Dobey Carey and enemies like Richard Widmark.”

“What good will it do to remove the statue? What American values will it instill? If there are any such endangered values, should we dig out his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Stop showing his movies?” he said.

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The words “John Wayne American Legend” are engraved on the platform below a statue of the actor at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

In a statement released to TMZ, Wayne’s son Ethan echoed the belief that his father wasn’t a racist.

“I know that term is casually tossed around these days, but I take it very seriously,” the statement reads. “The truth is … he did not support ‘white supremacy’ in any way and believed responsible people should gain power without the use of violence.

“Since his death … his legacy continues through the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, which has helped provide source, strength, and grit to the fight against cancer, and through his extensive film library.

“My father believed that we can learn from yesterday, but not by erasing the past. His name, no matter where it is, will always embody these values, and our family knows the positive impact that he made on the world will never be diminished.”

The Republican Party of Orange County said in a statement that it condemns what Wayne said in the 1971 interview. However, “we can also learn from his imperfections. Just like we’ve learned from and about the flaws of many leaders like JFK, FDR, and so on,” the statement reads.

“Iconography is about enshrining the larger ideals of good from their lives, not the flaws. Those goals are best served by keeping our history in front of us, not by destroying it to serve the radicalism and frenzy of the present moment. We owe that, at the very least, to the Americans who will come long after we are gone.

“John Wayne has long stood as a symbol of rugged individualism and magnanimous dedication to his community. On-screen, he was a bold and brave hero who stood against tyranny and cruelty. He demonstrated the idea that actions speak louder than words.”