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John Wayne Airport: Will California terminal’s name go the way of Confederate statues?

  • July 12, 2020

As statues of Confederate generals and other historically problematic figures are coming down in many cities, other cities are debating whether to rename their airports.

The calls for change have come with a wave of protests nationwide of how police treat African-Americans and the lingering effects of slavery and institutional racism on Black people. Though statues have become the most visible target, some airports also find themselves a flashpoint.

Some airports, like the one in Birmingham, Alabama, have been renamed for civil rights heroes. Others remain named for prominent people of another era, but whose views or attitudes may come off now as offensive or out-of-date.

The fight over monuments: Who is an American hero and who is a ‘symbol of hate’?

Orange County, California, named its airport for screen legend John Wayne after the actor’s death in 1979. At the time, the county was more white and conservative than it is today.

Now, the county is more diverse, and the Orange County Democratic Party wants the airport’s name changed. They cite comments Wayne made to Playboy Magazine in 1971 disparaging Blacks, Native Americans and gay people.

They want the county board of supervisors to remove his name and statue from the airport and restore its original name: Orange County Airport.

They’re not alone. Democrats in Nevada’s congressional delegation want to rename the busy McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Sen. Patrick McCarran, who served  from 1933 until his death in 1954, was an influential Democrat from Nevada in his time, but he also harbored anti-Semitic views.

They’ve asked state officials to remove a statute of McCarran in the U.S. Capitol and change the airport’s name “so that the gateway to Southern Nevada honors someone who truly represents its mission to welcome visitors from all backgrounds to our state.”

Dallas Love Field recently removed a 12-foot bronze statue of a Texas Ranger that has stood at the airport since 1963. According to a new book about the Rangers, “Cult of Glory,” the statue depicts Capt. Jay Banks, who in 1957 was dispatched on the governor’s orders to block the integration of a high school and a community college. 

“And Banks sided with the mobs who were there to keep the black kids out,” the book’s author, Doug Swanson, told the Associated Press last month. “So, he was the face of that and of a statue that welcomes people to Dallas.”

It’s not an issue most people think about when they’re flying, said Christian Grose, an associate professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southern California.  Still, airports may feel pressure to drop names or symbols that are bad for business.

In the Playboy interview, Wayne casually dismissed the intergenerational trauma of slavery, said Native Americans were “selfishly” hoarding land needed by white settlers and used an anti-gay slur to describe characters in two films that were popular at the time.

The backlash to such comments can be swift and severe in the age of social media, and people have lost their jobs for saying less.

“If people associate John Wayne with racist comments, they’re going to have a negative view of that airport,” Grose told USA TODAY. “It’s bad PR.”

Some changes happen with little fanfare. In 2003, San Diego’s Lindbergh Field became San Diego International Airport. The airport had been named for aviator Charles Lindbergh, but in recent decades, the public has become more aware of his Nazi sympathies. Officials wanted a name that better reflected the airport’s mission.

“I’m surprised we don’t do it more often, as times and norms change,” Grose said.

When Denver International Airport opened in 1995, the modern facility didn’t carry over the name of the airport it replaced, Stapleton. Denver’s onetime mayor, Benjamin Stapleton, helped get the original airport built. He was also a member of the KKK.

“It seems like a no-brainer to not have your airport named after a KKK leader,” Grose said.

Other airports have chosen to add the names of significant civil rights figures. Birmingham, Alabama, renamed its main airport in 2008 for Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the founding members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an ally of Martin Luther King Jr.

Last year, the airport in Louisville, Kentucky, added the name of native son Muhammad Ali. The Olympic champion boxer was once deeply unpopular for his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. But by the time of his death in 2016, public opinion had changed.

Recently, Louisville has been roiled by protests over the March killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old Black woman, by local police as she slept. Three months later, the nationwide demonstrations in support of Taylor have still not resulted in charges against the officers involved and only one of the three has been fired

“It’s easier to remove symbols than to enact policy changes,” Grose said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

In this undated photo, John Wayne appears during the filming of The Horse Soldiers.

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