Was John Wayne a racist? If he was, would it negate his monumental contributions to the movies, his role in establishing Hollywood as Southern California’s still-essential industry, and his stature as an icon of the cinematic American West?
For the Democrats who dominate the California State Assembly, the answers to these questions are You Betcha and Hell Yes. Last month, lawmakers in Sacramento voted 35-20 against a resolution to declare May 26 John Wayne Day in the Golden State. The resolution’s opponents pointed to a 1971 interview the actor gave to Playboy in which he said that he believed in “white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” In the same interview, Wayne argued that the popular perception that white American settlers had stolen land from Native American tribes left out valuable context: “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” It was surely not the actor’s finest hour.
Republican assemblyman Matthew Harper of Huntington Beach in Orange County—where the airport is already named for the Stagecoach actor—introduced the resolution to honor Wayne. “John Wayne was an important part of California’s history and is especially important for Orange County,” Harper said. Born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, the man who would become “the Duke” moved with his family to Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, when he was six. He went on to attend the University of Southern California and appear in more than 175 movies, many of them American classics. He won the 1970 Best Actor Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at the California Museum in Sacramento. After his death in 1979, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 1980, President Jimmy Carter honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For Assemblyman Luis Alejo of Salinas, however, Wayne’s remarkable life and his contributions to the California film industry matter little. The resolution honoring Wayne, Alejo said during a floor debate, had been “pretty well sanitized” and presented a “revisionist history of who this man was.” He went on to list Wayne’s support for the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee and his membership in the right-wing John Birch Society. But the main problem, said Alejo, was Wayne’s “disturbing views toward race.”
It’s certainly true that people don’t talk the way Wayne did about race anymore. Crude racial generalizations are no longer acceptable in public speech—nor should they be. Racist sentiments still exist in some quarters, but they have for the most part been driven underground. We are better off as a nation for that.
Still, the sudden reluctance among California’s Democratic lawmakers to honor luminaries with disturbing views is out of character. In recent years, the state has paid tribute to many individuals with troubling ideas. Unlike Wayne, however, those individuals were left-wingers. Their misstatements and missteps have been brushed aside or ignored by the people who hand out official proclamations.
For example, in 1988, the California legislature voted unanimously to declare April 21 John Muir Day. The Sierra Club founder, according to current governor Jerry Brown, was “a giant of a man” whose “scientific discoveries, engineering innovations and writings still inspire us today.” Presumably, Brown hasn’t read Muir’s reflections on “negroes” as “easy-going and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work.” It’s shocking to the modern ear to hear the celebrated naturalist declare that “one energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos and Sallies.”
Muir—the “great man”—evidently also had little regard for Native Americans. As The New Yorker’s Jedidiah Purdy surmised last year, Muir and other early environmentalists viewed communing with the American wilderness as “a way for a certain kind of white person to become symbolically native to the continent.” Yet, John Muir Day endures in California, celebrated with an official proclamation from the governor’s office every April 21, presumably because Muir’s status as the granddaddy of the environmental movement trumps his racist views.
On March 31 of every year since 2000, California formally celebrates Cesar Chavez Day, in honor of the founder of the United Farm Workers. “I ask all Californians to join me in continuing to build on his dream of a world where all workers are treated with dignity and respect,” Brown says in his annual proclamation. Countless California schools, parks, monuments, and public buildings bear Chavez’s name. And in 2014, President Obama declared March 31 a federal commemorative holiday in Chavez’s honor. All this for a man who, in a 1972 interview, called strikebreakers from Mexico “wetbacks,” a term widely considered racist and unmentionable today.
Muir, Chavez, and Wayne all spoke in ways that are now off-limits. So why are the first two beatified and the third denounced? You can probably do the math.
The list of less-than-stellar individuals honored by California is lengthy. The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs brought thousands of high-paying jobs to California while building the biggest company in the world. In his October 16, 2011 proclamation of Steve Jobs Day, Brown called Jobs a uniquely Californian visionary. By many accounts, however, the inventor and businessman was an abrasive, abusive, and arrogant man. More than that, Apple’s Chinese suppliers used child labor to assemble the iPhone. Apple even admitted it. But Steve Jobs gets a pass, one imagines, because he’s awesome—the guy who gave every bearded Millennial from San Francisco to Santa Monica the gadgets that make life in 2016 worth living. Apple is cool, ergo, Steve Jobs Day is A-Okay.
California would never issue a proclamation in honor of someone who loosened sanctions on Apartheid-era South Africa, right? In October 2012, Brown declared Mervyn M. Dymally Day to honor posthumously the man who served as California’s first black lieutenant governor. The Associated Press’s obituary noted that, while Dymally had indeed been a political trailblazer, he was also “never far from the whiff of scandal.” Allegations of “fraud, bribery and pay-for-play campaign contributions” followed the Los Angeles politician from Sacramento to Congress in the 1980s. In January 1990, just a month before Nelson Mandela was released from jail, Dymally was forced to explain why he’d amended sanctions legislation after a 1988 meeting with Maurice Tempelsman, chairman of diamond manufacturer and distributor Lazare Kaplan International. Tempelsman later gave more than $34,000 to a scholarship fund in Dymally’s name.
The city of Berkeley celebrates Malcolm X Day every May 20. Everyone knows that the militant Nation of Islam spokesman eventually moderated his views—and was probably killed for doing so—but it’s a stubborn fact that Malcolm X was a virulent racist for the bulk of his public life. He promoted undiluted hatred of white people; his preferred term was “white devil.”
The idea for John Wayne Day died, then, not because the actor espoused some ugly ideas. California is happy to bestow official laurels on other individuals expressing loathsome racial attitudes or exhibiting dubious behavior. John Wayne’s mistake was coupling his odious views with the kind of muscular, unabashed conservatism that offends the modern progressive mind. If he’d only had the good sense to adhere to approved lefty ideas, 2016 version—like most actors do—then he could have said just about anything and gotten away with it.
Photo by National Archives/Getty Images