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John Wayne Day idea nixed: How should 'Duke' be remembered?

Lawmakers voted down a proposal to honor the actor citing racist comments. Supporters of John Wayne Day attribute concerns to 'the orthodoxy of political correctness.'

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    A measure to honor actor-director John Wayne, shown in this historic 1978 photo, has erupted into heated debate.
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On screen, John Wayne was known for his iconic roles portraying grizzled cowboys and military heroes in a slew of classic Hollywood movies.

But his views offscreen, including racist comments and support for the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee, have halted an effort by state lawmakers in California to honor the late actor.

The state Assembly on Thursday scrapped an effort to designate May 26 as John Wayne Day in honor of the actor’s birthday, citing the actor's views on race and his support for anti-communism and the John Birch Society. He died in 1979.

“He had disturbing views towards race," said state Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D) beginning a 20-minute debate over the proposal by Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R).

The debate mirrors several other discussions around the legacies of historical figures who once expressed what would now be considered racist. Critics of such debates have argued that such views were not uncommon at the time and should not be judged by contemporary standards.

Former President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner who approved the Indian Removal Act, is currently being removed from the face of the $20 bill, to be replaced by Harriet Tubman, the first African-American and first woman in more than a century to be featured on the nation’s currency.

Former President Woodrow Wilson has also been the subject of renewed scrutiny as Princeton University students troubled by his segregationist views have lobbied for his name to be removed from campus buildings. The school has decided not to rename the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs but has launched a new civil rights exhibit that explores the controversies of his legacy. Yale University also dug in its heels despite calls to rename a residential college honoring the 19th-century politician and white supremacist John Calhoun.

But some California lawmakers said they found many of Wayne’s comments personally offensive.

Assemblyman Alejo cited several racist statements the actor, who was often known as “Duke,” made in a 1971 Playboy interview.

“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,” Wayne told the magazine.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D) also cited a comment Wayne made about white Europeans encroaching on the land of Native Americans, who he said, “were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

Assemblyman Harper blasted the resolution’s 35-20 defeat, saying it was due to “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 in a statement.

Wayne, who grew up in Glendale, Calif., was the star of  such movies as “The Alamo," ''The Green Beret," and "True Grit," for which he won an Academy Award.

Harper said the measure was an effort to keep up with a Texas resolution honoring Wayne’s birthday that passed a year ago. His district includes John Wayne Airport in Orange County, which was renamed after the actor’s death and includes a nine-foot-tall statue of Wayne.

Other lawmakers supporting the resolution called Wayne an American hero and noted that others have been honored despite controversies in their pasts. President Franklin Roosevelt had been honored despite his interment of Japanese Americans during World II, said Assemblyman Donald Wagner (R).

“Every one of us is imperfect,” Assemblyman Wagner said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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