Five Historic Icons Who Had A Reputation For Being Racist

5 Historic Icons Who Had A Reputation For Being Racist

There are certain historic figures who we've idolized, placing them on the highest of pedestals in our minds and in our hearts. Their memories evoke a nostalgia inside of us or an intense respect for the contributions they've made to our society, and as far as we're concerned, they can do no wrong.

But in reality, many of these icons have an ugly side to their reputation, while others have gotten a bad rep over the years. A vast number of our beloved heroes were known for saying and doing things that we'd scoff at today -- in addition to the fact that we'd most likely tear them apart on Twitter -- and there are others whose reputations have been marred with ugly rumors.

We've rounded up a list of historic icons who had a reputation for being racist. After doing some digging, we found that some rumors were true, some weren't and some were so shady you'll just have to decide for yourself.

Babe Ruth
babe ruth

The great Bambino is often hailed as the best baseball player to ever play the game, but his larger than life status has been marred for years by accusations of racism. Amidst longstanding rumors that the baseball legend was in fact black himself, many believe The Babe also refused to play against African-American players.

This couldn't be further from the truth. Ruth was in fact a champion for Negro League teams, playing against them multiple times throughout his career when other notable players refused to do so. He was close friends with entertainer and part owner of "The Black Yankees," Bill "Bo Jangles" Robinson, whom he invited to join him on his trip home after beating the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis is rumored to have leaned over the ropes to say “I’m going to hit one this time for you, Babe,” during his 1937 fight against Tiger Hairston. The two reportedly had a close friendship, sharing secrets with each other on how to handle a bat in home run fashion, and how to land the perfect knockout punch.

However, the legend was truly a product of his time, using racial and ethnic slurs like "wops" to refer to Italian-Americans and "micks" to refer to Irish-Americans. He also used the n-word on occasion, saying he was often referred to as "nigger lips" because of his strikingly African features.

Walt Disney
walt disney

As the creator of characters that fill our hearts with joy and raise nostalgic childhood memories, it's hard to believe Walt Disney could have held racist views. When asked about an accurate depiction of the legend "with warts and all" in the movie "Saving Mr. Banks," Tom Hanks said "he wasn't a warty type of guy," perfectly summing up what we'd all like to believe.

But there are several charges against Disney for being racist, anti-Semitic and sexist. The racism rumors stem primarily from racial stereotypes embedded within several movies including, Dumbo's black crows, Fantasia's black servant centaurette and "Song of the South," a film so embarrassingly racist the Disney company has locked it up in its infamous vault.

In his biography "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination," Neal Gabler discusses an instance when Disney used the word "pickaninny" and a meeting in which he referred to the seven dwarves as a "nigger pile." According to Vulture, Gabler also points out that Disney anticipated the controversy around "Song of the South" and released the film anyway, despite the fact that a scheduled meeting with the NAACP never took place.

Thomas Jefferson
thomas jefferson
As one of the nation's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson held it as a self-evident truth that "all men are created equal." But the country's third president didn't in fact practice what he preached.

Despite his well-known affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings, Jefferson's actions with his own slaves and unyielding adherence to the horrific institution were quite contrary to the founding principles he held so dear and, quite frankly, hypocritical. And although some historians regard him as a product of his environment, many of his contemporaries including George Washington freed their slaves after the Revolutionary War, but Jefferson did not. In fact, upon his death, Jefferson's will only emancipated five of his slaves and mandated that the nearly 200 others be put up for auction -- the five freed slaves were offspring of his and his mistress, Hemmings, who remained enslaved.

Jefferson was reportedly also a cruel master, separating slaves from family members as punishment and also expressed his feelings that blacks were unequal to whites. He regarded free blacks as “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves,” and that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”

John Wayne
john wayne actor

On screen, John Wayne often played an All-American hero. But behind-the-scenes the actor had some shocking views on race relations. During a 1971 interview with Playboy, Wayne shared his thoughts that can only be summed up as...well, racist.

When asked about discrimination he said the following:

With a lot of blacks, there's quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. 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.

And here's what he had to say about promoting diversity in Hollywood:

I've directed two pictures and I gave the blacks their proper position. I had a black slave in The Alamo, and I had a correct number of blacks in The Green Berets. 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. There isn't necessarily going to be 10 percent of the grips or sound men who are black, because more than likely, 10 percent haven't trained themselves for that type of work.

Elvis Presley

For many years, Elvis Presley's title as "The King" has been challenged by critics who say the late rock and roll icon popularized music that originated in the African-American community. This criticism held even more weight with accusations that the Graceland star was intolerant of the very individuals whose music he performed.

In the 1989 Public Enemy hit "Fight the Power," rapper Chuck D declares the music legend was racist -- a statement he later rescinded. But many other black entertainers and members of the community have questioned whether or not the assessment is true or false.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Peter Guralnick vehemently defends Presley against the accusation. Guralnick points out that a rumor had persisted within the African-American community that, during an interview, the singer once said “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” However, he says Elvis vehemently denied that statement during an interview with Johnson Publishing Company's Jet magazine, saying anyone who knew him "would immediately recognize that he could never have uttered those words." Guralnick goes on to chronicle Presley's attendance as a teenager at the church of celebrated black gospel composer, the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster, as well as his friendship with and praise for black entertainers who paved the way like B.B. King, who he reportedly showed gratitude towards, saying “Thanks, man, for all the early lessons you gave me.”

Before You Go

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