An effort by Orange County supervisors to come up with new logos for John Wayne Airport has seemingly reignited the long simmering debate over Wayne, his views on race and whether he’s still the right fit for a local airport in an increasingly diverse metropolitan county.
Last week, a story by Voice of OC – about county supervisors voting to spend $50,000 to develop a new logo for the airport – sparked a flurry of online comments and emails noting the logo debate missed an important wrinkle.
The supervisors’ discussion revived calls from two years ago to rename the airport, citing John Wayne’s comments in a 1970s interview that he “believe[s] in white supremacy.”
After last week’s article on the airport logo initiative, Anaheim resident Gabe Gayhart wrote an email to Voice of OC saying the airport’s name should be changed, calling Wayne a “cowboy from the cowboy and Indian era in a racist time.”
“It’s time we honored our true heroes and got rid of the names of racist anti Native American, anti-African American (read the John Interview in Playboy) actors,” wrote another reader, who asked that their name not be published.
Others chimed in on Instagram with calls to scrap Wayne’s name from the airport.
“If they spend $50k it better be to drop the John Wayne moniker,” wrote Aliso Viejo resident Aimee Monahan.
“Just call it Santa Ana or Orange County Airport,” she added.
“Absolutely [expletive] not. I’d be on board if they used that money to change the name,” wrote another reader.
“John Wayne was a r@cist. Screw him and anyone that thinks his views on people of color were acceptable,” added another.
“Rename it to what it ALREADY is in the airport code (SNA) to the Santa Ana Airport or at least call it the Orange County Airport.
They cited a 1970s interview of Wayne in which he said: “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.”
“I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people were slaves,” he added.
“We can remember the good things that John Wayne did for this nation and Orange County. We can and do condemn what he said in that 1971 magazine interview. So, we can also learn from his imperfections,” wrote OC Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker at the time.
“Iconography is about enshrining the larger ideals of good from their lives, not the flaws. Those goals are best served by keeping our history in front of us, not by destroying it to serve the radicalism and frenzy of the present moment,” he continued.
The county GOP chairman wrote efforts to remove people like Wayne from public spaces was driven by similar mindset that drove the Nazis.
“The totalitarian ideology that drives the current desire to destroy our nation’s past has a dark and troubled history across the world,” Whitaker wrote.
“From the guillotine of the French revolution to the Bolshevik gulags, to Nazi concentration camps, to the Cultural Revolution in China, to the human burnings and beheadings of ISIS, history is replete with totalitarian movements that insist upon demonizing groups of people, defacing statues and erasing all symbols of the past.”
Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner says he continues to oppose removing Wayne’s name from the airport, noting the actor’s “iconic Americana profile” and saying he was starly different from the Confederate leaders whose statues were removed in the wake of Floyd’s killing.
“Unlike John Wayne, Confederate leaders are memorialized in bronze and stone only because of their despicable views and treason against America,” Wagner wrote in a text message to Voice of OC late last week.
“In addition, Wayne did not say in that article that minorities were irredeemably inferior, but only that their attainments at the time were, in his wrongheaded view, inferior. He held out the explicit view that educational achievements he felt then lacking were in fact attainable,” Wagner continued.
“Again, that contrasts with Confederate leaders who believed in the inherent inferiority of minorities,” he added.
“As wrong as Wayne was in his views set out in the magazine, he is not celebrated at the airport for those views. Renaming the airport would show us to be a society incapable of drawing that principled distinction, and consigning each person to judgment based on their worst days rather than on the totality of their lives.”
Asked for her view, Supervisor Katrina Foley said she hasn’t received any calls recently to change the airport’s name and that her priorities are elsewhere.
“My priority right now is addressing operational, structural, and environmental issues at the airport, including the new concessions program, millions in deferred structural maintenance, assisting the small pilots being priced out, and onboarding our new airport director Charlene Reynolds, who has done an excellent job,” Foley said.
The other three supervisors didn’t return messages for comment.
It remains unclear how Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett came to pick Laguna College of Art and Design for the $50,000 logo update, as opposed to design programs at other Orange County colleges or opening up to a countywide competition.
Bartlett didn’t return a phone message for comment.
Foley – who proposed the $50,000 project alongside Bartlett – said she was simply going along with what Bartlett proposed.
“This was all Lisa’s suggestion as she was using her [federal COVID response] funds to support the school in her district. I’ve supported the schools in my district in other ways,” Foley said in a text message to Voice of OC.
“We sit on the ad Hoc committee for the airport together so when she asked if I would support, I agreed. The logo is ancillary to the funding for the college. If the board majority doesn’t like the proposals then nothing changes.”
As for the name, Fred Smoller, a Chapman University professor who wrote a 2020 op-ed calling for the airport to be renamed, says the airport should reflect Orange County’s diversity – and that Wayne’s comments undermine that.
“The county is much different than when the Duke lived here,” said Smoller, referring to Wayne by his nickname, in an interview late last week.
“[The airport is] a major public building and the name should reflect the new Orange County, and the fact that it’s a diverse county. We have Wayne’s quotations that are quite racist. And that sort of thing is not reflective of who we are, and more importantly who we aspire to be,” he added.
“Those are not our values.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.