OC Democrats push to rename John Wayne Airport over white supremacy comments

California

The statue of John Wayne at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana on Wednesday, September 25, 2019. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

IRVINE, Calif. (CNN) — Democrats in Orange County, California, are done with The Duke, and they want John Wayne’s name and likeness stripped from the county’s airport.

The pols cite Wayne’s professed support of white supremacy in a 1971 Playboy interview, in which he espoused derogatory views of African Americans, Native Americans and movies with gay characters.

The article went viral in February 2019, but amid calls to take down tributes to Confederate soldiers and others who promoted hateful views, it has resurfaced and serves as the basis for the Orange County Democrats’ resolution, which passed Friday.

It is up to the Orange County Board of Supervisors to make the final decision. Local Democrats want it renamed Orange County Airport.

“While some outside Orange County may not know of John Wayne’s beliefs in white supremacy, many Orange County residents have been calling for his removal for years,” county party chairwoman Ada Briceño said in a statement. “We’re seeing renewed calls for this right now, and it’s time for change.”

Wayne’s oeuvre included more than 150 feature-length films, including “Sands of Iwo Jima,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination for best actor, and “True Grit,” for which he won an Oscar. He died in 1979 in Los Angeles at age 72.

‘They’re trying to contradict how he lived’

In an interview last year, the actor’s son, Ethan Wayne, said his dad’s words in the Playboy Q&A were being taken out of context and that his father “took everyone at face value.”

“It would be an injustice to judge someone based on an interview that’s being used out of context,” he said. “They’re trying to contradict how he lived his life, and how he lived his life was who he was. So any discussion of removing his name from the airport should include the full picture of the life of John Wayne and not be based on a single outlier interview from half a century ago.”

State Sen. Tom Umberg, also a Democrat, wrote an op-ed published Saturday in The Orange County Register explaining his view that erecting statues and christening buildings should be reserved for those who reflect the county’s values. That won’t be the case, he wrote, for a child who today Googles the actor whose career spanned more than five decades.

“What they’ll discover is that John Wayne died 41 years ago and was an actor who was most famous for his roles in Westerns and war movies, although in real life he was never a cowboy nor served in uniform,” the lawmaker wrote.

“Among other disturbing facts, she will also discover that he was a self-proclaimed white supremacist.”

Umberg proffered other Orange County luminaries for whom the airport could be named, including Medal of Honor recipients Walter Ehlers, Mike Monsoor and Tibor Rubin. Ehlers stormed the beach on D-Day, Monsoor died in Iraq protecting his fellow Navy SEALS from a grenade blast and Rubin survived the Holocaust and more than two years as a prisoner of war during the Korean War.

‘I believe in white supremacy…’

Though the county Democrats’ resolution cites two direct quotes from the Playboy article, there are numerous instances in which Wayne made bigoted remarks:

  • In discussing the revocation of activist Angela Davis’ teaching credentials, Wayne said, “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.”
  • Asked about Native Americans playing subordinate roles in his movies, he replied, “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
  • When the interviewer requests an example of movies he finds perverted, Wayne singles out Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight’s characters in “Midnight Cowboy,” which won three Oscars: “Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of those two men in ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ a story about two f*gs, qualifies? But don’t get me wrong. As far as a man and a woman is concerned, I’m awfully happy there’s a thing called sex.”
  • On the matter of education in the African American community, he said, “Some blacks have tried to force the issue and enter college when they haven’t passed the tests and don’t have the requisite background. … I don’t know why people insist that blacks have been forbidden their right to go to school. They were allowed in public schools wherever I’ve been.”
  • Again on education, he said, “I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people were slaves. Now, I’m not condoning slavery. 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.”
  • On casting Black actors, Wayne opined, “If it’s supposed to be a black character, naturally I use a black actor, but I don’t go so far as hunting for positions for them. I think the Hollywood studios are carrying their tokenism a little too far. There’s no doubt that 10 percent of the population is black, or colored, or whatever they want to call themselves; they certainly aren’t Caucasian. Anyway, I suppose there should be the same percentage of the colored race in films as in society, but it can’t always be that way.”

Airport opened in 1923

CNN could not immediately reach Michelle Steel, the Republican chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, or Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County Republicans.

Chapman University associate political science professor Fred Smoller and fellow Chapman academic Michael Moodian, who helped craft the county Democrats’ resolution, wrote an op-ed last week explaining how Orange County’s demographics and values have changed in the four decades since the airport took Wayne’s name.

“I don’t see this as a Democrat or a Republican or liberal vs. conservative issue. It’s about universal values: Racism is wrong. It should play no role in America. John Wayne’s own words provide the most powerful reason this civic honor should not be bestowed,” Smoller told CNN. “John Wayne Airport is Orange County’s confederate statue, its ode to white supremacy. If Mississippi can remove the confederacy from its flag, then Orange County can remove images of John Wayne from its airport.”

Aviation pioneer Eddie Martin opened the airport, located south of Los Angeles, in 1923 and opened a flight school and eponymous aviation company there. Orange County acquired it in 1939.

The county Board of Supervisors renamed Orange County Airport to John Wayne Airport in 1979, calling the actor a “man of humility, of honesty, and a hero of the American West (who) was a symbol to the world of the traditional American values.”

The same year, The John Wayne Associates commissioned sculptor Robert Summers to create a 9-foot statue of The Duke, in cowboy garb, sauntering atop a marble pedestal. The statue was finished in 1982 and later placed in the lobby of the Thomas F. Riley Terminal, named for a Marines brigadier general who went on to serve as an Orange County supervisor.

In addition to the statue, the airport’s gift shops celebrate the actor with T-shirts, shot glasses and other knickknacks bearing Wayne’s image.

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