Is John Wayne a Racist Symbol?

I wrote John Wayne’s obituary for the Chicago Tribune in 1979. At the time, I was the newspaper’s West Coast Bureau Chief, and the “Duke” had just passed away at age 72 from stomach cancer.

It was a tough obit to write. I had grown up on John Wayne movies—especially classics like 1956’s “The Searchers,” and director John Ford’s iconic “cavalry trilogy” (“Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and “Rio Grande”).

There are so many unforgettable Wayne films that I can name from the 200 or so he made. There is 1948’s “Red River” about the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. There was 1949’s “The Sands of Iwo Jima” in which he plays tough and demanding Sergeant John M. Stryker, and there is 1952’s “The Quiet Man,” in which he plays an Irish-born American and former heavyweight boxer who travels to Ireland in the 1920s to buy his family’s old farm.

And of course, there is 1969’s “True Grit,” Wayne’s only Oscar-winning performance as the cantankerous lawman Rooster Cogburn.

His last film, 1976’s “The Shootist,” was a poignant and prophetic look at an aging gunfighter named John Books who is dying of cancer. I still can’t look at that film without getting a lump in my throat.

Along with my father, John Wayne was a man I wanted to model myself after.

I loved Wayne’s portrayal of strong, brave, and confident men who were courageous when faced with peril and self-assured in their power to overcome barriers.

He was the quintessential independent American— self-reliant and ready to fight for what he believed was right.

When it came to politics, he was just as tough and just as confident that the right thing to do was to stand up for freedom, for “the individual and his rights.”

He was a true patriot, a man who loved America. And of course, that’s precisely why the left hated him—and still does.

You would think that hatred would have dissipated a little in the 41 years since his death.

But it hasn’t.

With Wayne in his grave and unable to defend himself, the sleazy Democrat Party of Orange County California recently passed a resolution calling John Wayne a “racist symbol” and demanding that the airport in Orange County that bears his name, along with a commanding nine-foot statue, be renamed.

How ludicrous.

The Democrats are basing this spurious indictment on a minor 50-year-old interview Wayne did with Playboy magazine. As they are inclined to do, one of their ilk apparently rummaged through his closet of ancient Playboy T & A magazines and stumbled upon the Wayne interview during which the outspoken Duke used what today is deemed inflammatory and racist words.

Tsk, tsk.

I have not read the interview, but in the 1971 interview, Wayne was apparently asked about white supremacy—a term that didn’t carry the same connotation then that it does today. His response: “Until blacks are educated to the point of responsibility. . . I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

Wayne also said that although he did not condone slavery, he didn’t feel personally guilty about what happened five or ten generations ago.

He also said he felt no remorse that Europeans supplanted Native Americans as stewards of the nation’s lands.

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them,” Wayne said. “Our so-called stealing of this country from them was a matter of survival.”

John Wayne’s son, Ethan, came to his father’s defense last week.

“It would be an injustice to judge someone based on an interview that’s being used out of context,” Ethan Wayne told CNN last Saturday. “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. 

“My father worked in Hollywood for 50 years, and Hollywood is probably, you know, one of the most progressive and diverse communities on Earth. He didn’t care what race, gender, or sexual orientation you were. He cared how well you did your job. He took everyone at face value.

“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 that the President gave him a Medal of Freedom. It was recognition of a lifetime of significant contributions to this country, his community, and his industry.”

Were John Wayne’s words a bit injudicious in that Playboy interview? Yes, if you examine them in the context of a 2020 mindset.

When I was growing up in 1950s Kansas, I recall hearing the “N” word often, as well as derogatory terms to describe gays, Mexicans, Indians, Irish, Jews, Italians, Chinese, etc.

I didn’t condone them, but I still wouldn’t desecrate the memory or the accomplishments of those who uttered them so long ago.

That would be what Jesus rightfully called “casting the first stone.”

Would you hear those same words used today? I don’t think so. At least I haven’t.

It was a different time; a time when people were not sensitive to the pain a pejorative or deprecating word could have on others.

To hold people accountable for the attitudes and thoughtlessness of an era five decades past is, I believe, the height of unreasonable retrospection.

Of course, I sincerely believe there is another reason Democrats are so intent on destroying the formidable legacy of John Wayne.

He was an unapologetic American patriot. For example, he was one of the few people in Hollywood who continued to support American troops in Vietnam when his tinsel town colleagues were calling them baby killers, and some in this nation were spitting on them when they returned home.

As a veteran of the U.S. Army, I appreciated Wayne’s unrelenting support.

Wayne was no sunshine patriot. He put his mouth where his beliefs were. In 1944, he was one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the MPA. The group of actors, directors, and writers was organized to fight the leftist movement in Hollywood.

Iconic actors Clark Gable and Robert Taylor were presidents of the organization. Wayne became the MPA’s President in 1949 and served until 1952. Studio executives warned Wayne that his role at the MPA would wreck his career and kill him at the box office.

They were woefully wrong. A year after assuming the presidency of the organization, Wayne was the top box-office star in the country, up from a rank of 32nd.

“I never felt I needed to apologize for my patriotism,” Wayne once said. “I felt that if there were Communists in the business — and I knew there were — then they ought to go over to Russia and try enjoying freedom there. We were just good Americans, and we demanded the right to speak our minds. After all, the Communists in Hollywood were speaking theirs. (Ahem. They still are.)

“If you’re in a fight, you must fight to win, and in those early years of the Cold War, I strongly believed that our country’s fundamental values were in jeopardy. I think that the Communists proved my point over the years.”

John Wayne was a defiant anti-Communist. He once explained his position by saying Communists “were rotten and corrupt and poisoned the air of our communities by creating suspicion, distrust, and hatred.”

Sound familiar? It should. It’s what we are seeing and hearing today as mobs rampage through our streets ripping down statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and attacking anybody who opposes them.

“We (members of the MPA) were the real liberals,” Wayne said. “We believed in freedom. We believed in the individual and his rights. We hated Soviet Communism. It was against all religions, and it trampled on the individual because it was a slave society.”

Ethan Wayne insists his father did not support ‘white supremacy’ in any way and believed that responsible people should gain power without the use of violence.

“It’s an injustice to judge my father based on a single interview, Ethan Wayne said. “The big picture paints a much different picture of dad, who called out bigotry when he saw it.”

Wayne’s son also pointed to his father’s lasting legacy, the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, and says his name will always embody courage, strength, and grit.

That’s the John Wayne, I know.

Click here to see my front page obit of John Wayne:

John Wayne dead at 72, Jun 12, 1979

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