John Wayne’s son is speaking out after California Democrats in Orange County recently demanded that the county’s John Wayne Airport be renamed and all likenesses of Wayne be removed from the airport, over “racist and bigoted statements” made by the American icon decades ago.
The resolution, which passed on Friday, is asking the county's board of supervisors to restore the name to Orange County Airport.
In a statement to Fox News on Monday, Ethan Wayne said: "Let me make one thing clear -- John Wayne was not a racist. I know that term is casually tossed around these days, but I take it very seriously. I also understand how we got to this point.
"There is no question that the words spoken by John Wayne in an interview 50 years ago have caused pain and anger," Ethan continued, referencing the late actor’s 1971 interview with Playboy. "They pained him as well, as he realized his true feelings were wrongly conveyed."
In the interview at the time, Wayne is quoted saying, “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 also said he felt no remorse for the subjugation of Native Americans and called movies such as “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” perverted.
Ethan, who is Wayne's youngest son and president of John Wayne Enterprises, went on to say in his statement on Monday: "The truth is, as we have seen in papers from his archives, he did not support 'white supremacy' in any way and believed that responsible people should gain power without the use of violence.
"Those who knew him, knew he judged everyone as an individual and believed everyone deserved an equal opportunity," Ethan added. "He called out bigotry when he saw it. He hired and worked with people of all races, creeds, and sexual orientations. John Wayne stood for the very best for all of us -- a society that doesn’t discriminate against anyone seeking the American dream."
Ethan said that it "would be an injustice to judge him based on a single interview, as opposed to the full picture of who he was."
"The current focus on social justice is absolutely valid and necessary. But attempts by some to use it for political advantage distract from real opportunities for reform," he said.
The 58-year-old also explained what his father would have done if he was still alive today.
"One thing we know – if John Wayne were here today, he would be in the forefront demanding fairness and justice for all people," Ethan said. "He would have pulled those officers off of George Floyd, because that was the right thing to do. He would stand for everyone’s right to protest and work toward change."
Wayne passed away at age 72 from cancer in 1979.
"Since his death more than 40 years ago, his legacy continues through the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, which has helped provide courage, strength and grit to the fight against cancer, and through his extensive film library. My father believed that we can learn from yesterday, but not by erasing the past. His name, no matter where it is, will always embody these values, and our family knows the positive impact that he made on the world will never be diminished," Ethan concluded his statement.
The push to oust Wayne, who was a longtime county resident, from the airport's name has a lengthy history. The airport, which is in the heart of Orange County, dates back decades and county officials voted to change the name to remember Wayne when he died.
Deanne Thompson, an airport spokeswoman, has previously said the county has no plans to change the name or remove a statue of Wayne from the airport, though the issue comes up periodically, including last year.
However, the current push comes as thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against black people and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd's death.
In many places, communities have moved to take down statues of former slaveholders -- or topple them -- and remove the Confederate emblem from imagery including Mississippi's state flag, as well as rename buildings and institutions that are named after people deemed to have held racist views or committed racist acts.
The Democratic Party of Orange County said in a statement that it agrees with the move to remove Wayne's name from the airport. The statement said, in part, that "Orange County is now a diverse region far different from the time when John Wayne was chosen as namesake for the airport."
Fox News' Adam Shaw and The Associated Press contributed to this report