The Democratic Party of Orange County, California, has called for John Wayne Airport to be renamed because of comments the late actor, known as “The Duke,” made nearly 50 years ago on white supremacy, sexual orientation and race relations.
In an emergency resolution prompted by an op-ed by Chapman University academics Fred Smoller and Mike Moodian, local Democratic leaders argued that the ongoing protests against racial injustice in the United States had presented the right moment to return John Wayne Airport to its original name, Orange County Airport, which it dropped in 1979, the year Wayne died.
The resolution was passed last week, with voters expected to decide on the name change later this year in a ballot initiative. It argues that Wayne’s “white supremacist, anti-LGBT, and anti-Indigenous views,” as revealed in a 1971 interview that resurfaced in 2019 when it was transcribed online, were more than enough reason for the change.
In the interview, in the May 1971 edition of Playboy magazine, Wayne critiqued “perverted” movies, including the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy,” which he called “a story about two fags.” When questioned about racial discrimination, Wayne said that white Americans “can’t all of a sudden get down on [their] knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the Blacks.” When prompted on the struggles of Black performers to break into Hollywood, Wayne stressed that it was “just as hard for a white man to get a card in the Hollywood craft unions.”
“I believe in white supremacy until the Blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” Wayne said. “I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”
In the interview, Wayne also argued that Native Americans did not necessarily deserve reparations.
“Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival,” Wayne said. “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.... I’m sure there have been inequalities. If those inequalities are presently affecting any of the Indians now alive, they have a right to a court hearing. But what happened 100 years ago in our country can’t be blamed on us today.... I don’t see why we owe them anything. I don’t know why the government should give them something that it wouldn’t give me.”
In their June 23 opinion article that instigated the resolution, Smoller and Moodian wrote that Wayne’s comments proved he was a “bigot.” They argued that Orange County has a diverse ethnic makeup, with “non-Hispanic Anglos mak[ing] up slightly less than 40 percent of the population,” and that Wayne “in no way represents Orange County today and its thriving communities of color.”
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. Fred Smoller, Chapman University
Despite this argument, defenders of Wayne have emerged since the resolution passed, including President Donald Trump, who tweeted that the “Do Nothing Democrats” were showcasing “incredible stupidity” in striving to change the airport’s name.
Wayne’s youngest son, Ethan Wayne, told local media that his father was “a good man” and that “if John Wayne was there when that policeman was kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, you can bet that John Wayne would’ve pulled him off.”
“The truth is ... he did not support ‘white supremacy’ in any way and believed that responsible people should gain power without the use of violence,” the younger Wayne told TMZ. “He called out bigotry when he saw it. He hired and worked with people of all races, creeds and sexual orientations.... It would be an injustice to judge him based on a single interview, as opposed to the full picture of who he was.”
In a statement sent to HuffPost, both Moodian and Smoller acknowledged Ethan Wayne’s defense of his father but argued that the elder Wayne had remained silent on social causes during his own era and “clearly expressed his belief that others were inferior and undeserving of an equal place in society.”
“He was dismissive of historical atrocities,” they said. “He ridiculed advocacy for fairness and equality. Wayne had no kind words for the social movements of the 1960s in which Blacks, women, LGBTQ+ community members, and Native Americans fought for ‘fairness and justice for all people.’”
Moodian told HuffPost that the term “white supremacy in 1971 carried the same meaning that it does in 2020” and that, to the best of his knowledge, Wayne never publicly retracted the statements he made in the Playboy interview.
“I believe he certainly would not be on the side of taking on systematic racism in the United States today,” Moodian said, “because he wasn’t a champion of taking on systematic racism during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.”
Both Moodian and Smoller stressed that they weren’t the first to suggest renaming the airport, pointing to Los Angeles Times columns a year ago. But according to Smoller, the police killing of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis and similar killings of Black people within recent months had snowballed “a growing reckoning with racism in the U.S.,” and it was vital to “critically look at systems in our society as they pertain to centuries of inequities.”
“John Wayne Airport is Orange County’s Confederate statue, its ode to white supremacy,” Smoller said. “If Mississippi can remove the Confederacy from its flag, then Orange County can remove images of John Wayne from its airport.”
Smoller added that the matter was not a “liberal-versus-conservative issue,” but rather it was about universal values.
“What standards should we be using for naming buildings, statues and holidays after people?” he said. “It’s very simple. We have in this country values that are enshrined in our documents, like the Declaration of Independence, that say all men are created equal. You create honors for people who pull us closer to our objectives. Wayne was not one of those people.”