SACRAMENTO — What a California lawmaker intended as a benign resolution honoring a late, world-renowned movie icon exploded into an emotional debate over decades-old racist comments.
The state Assembly defeated the official ode to John Wayne on Thursday after several legislators described statements he made about racial minorities and his support for the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee and John Birch Society.
Known as “Duke,” a nickname he picked up as a boy in Glendale, California, Wayne grew into the star of movies including “The Alamo,” “The Green Berets” and “True Grit,” for which he won an Academy Award, while portraying the gruff, rugged cowboys and brave soldiers who were his stock in trade.
Republican State Assemblyman Matthew Harper of Huntington Beach sought to declare May 26, 2016, as John Wayne Day to mark the day the actor was born.
“He had disturbing views towards race,” objected Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), leading off a 20-minute debate.
Alejo cited a 1971 interview with Playboy in which Wayne talked disparagingly about 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,” he told the magazine.
Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), who is black, said he found Wayne’s comments personally offensive.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) cited his comments defending white Europeans’ encroachment on American Indians who Wayne once said “were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
Wayne is the latest deceased white icon to recently come under attack. Former President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner and Indian fighter, is being removed from the face of the $20 bill. Princeton University recently announced that former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s name will remain on its public policy school despite calls to remove it because he was a segregationist.
Harper's resolution fell on a 35-20 vote to what Harper called “the orthodoxy of political correctness.”
“Opposing the John Wayne Day resolution is like opposing apple pie, fireworks, baseball, the Free Enterprise system and the Fourth of July!” he said later in a written statement.
Harper said he sought the resolution, ACR137, to keep up with a Texas resolution commemorating Wayne’s birthday a year ago.
He represents the legislative district that includes John Wayne Airport in Orange County. The airport, among the largest in California, was renamed after Wayne’s death in 1979 and hosts a nine-foot-tall statue of the actor.
“I think the assemblyman would know if there was a cross word about having the airport named after him,” said Harper’s spokeswoman, Madeleine Cooper.
Several lawmakers supported the resolution, recalling Wayne as an American hero whose family created a namesake cancer foundation after his death.
“He stood for those big American values that we know and we love,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach).
Lawmakers have honored others despite controversies that eventually clouded their legacies, said Assemblyman Donald Wagner (R-Irvine). Wagner cited President Franklin Roosevelt, who has been honored despite his internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.