Should John Wayne’s racist and anti-gay remarks made in a nearly 50-year-old Playboy magazine interview justify his name’s removal from Orange County’s John Wayne Airport?
Orange County’s airport was dedicated to the late film star after he died in 1979.
Ethan Wayne, the film star’s son, took to CNN on Saturday to defend his father’s name, literally.
“Obviously, we don’t want our father attacked ... by someone who’s taking words from an interview that’s eight hours long and using them out of context,” Ethan Wayne said in an interview with CNN host Michael Smerconish.
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The interview in question, which can be read online in its entirety, began with a discussion of the state of the motion picture industry in the early ‘70s.
The interviewer, which the Washington Post reported was Richard Warren Lewis, at one point asked John Wayne, who was born Marion Morrison, to give an example of the kind of “perverted” film he complained was taking over Hollywood.
“Oh, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy—that kind of thing. Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of those two men in Midnight Cowboy, a story about two f***, qualifies?” John Wayne responded.
He went on to add that he is “awfully happy there’s a thing called sex” but only “as far as a man and a woman is concerned.”
Ethan Wayne told Smerconish that his father was “not talking negatively about homosexuality” in that statement, but simply expressing his distaste for the current direction of the film industry.
Later in the interview, John Wayne criticized the civil rights movement.
“With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so,” John Wayne said. “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.”
When Lewis challenged John Wayne on whether he was “equipped to judge which blacks are irresponsible,” John Wayne responded, “It’s not my judgment. The academic community has developed certain tests that determine whether the blacks are sufficiently equipped scholastically.”
John Wayne said that he didn’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,” he said.
School segregation was an official policy in many parts of the South until the late ‘60s, and an unofficial policy in schools across the country even today.
The UCLA Civil Rights Project found in 2014 that “the growth of segregation has been most dramatic for Latino students, particularly in the West, where there was substantial integration in the l960s, and segregation has soared.”
Wayne defended Hollywood’s treatment of black actors as well.
“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.’”
John Wayne also defended the United States’ treatment of Native Americans, saying that the forceful seizure of their land was justified because Native Americans “were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
John Wayne’s remarks resurfaced in a time when Americans are grappling with their history of white supremacy; a war with battlegrounds at college campuses and capitol buildings across the country where statues of Confederate leaders still stand and the Confederate battle flag still flies.
Some, like Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, have argued it’s time to remove John Wayne’s name from Orange County’s airport, and to take down his statue.
Hiltzik rebuffed the notion that John Wayne was just a man of his time or that it was unfair to judge something said so long ago. Hiltzik pointed out that at the time of the interview in 1971, the civil rights movement was decades old and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated three years prior.
“Wayne wasn’t expressing the tenor of the times — he was reacting to the advances being won by African Americans through demonstrations and legislation,” Hiltzik wrote. “His words already were retrograde when they were uttered. Wayne wasn’t an old conservative who hadn’t yet been ‘woke’; he had seen the future, and it put him into a racist rage.”
The columnist concluded by writing, “There surely are residents or natives of Orange County more deserving of having their name on the airport.”
Ethan Wayne accused critics of disregarding his father’s achievements and “trying to contradict how he lived his life.”
“They put my father’s name on that airport for the same reason that Congress voted to give him a Congressional gold medal, for the same reason the president decided to give him a Medal of Freedom. And it’s recognition of a lifetime of significant contributions to his country, his community and to his industry.”