John Wayne: White Supremacist–Views of the African American Community and Black ctors

John Wayne was accused by some critics of being a racist, because of his belief in white supremacy in America.

Wayne’s intimate association with the Western film, which has traditionally ignored or, at best, under-represented all ethnic minorities, especially blacks, was used by his critics as further proof of his racism.

Most of all, he was attacked by two groups: Native Americans and African Americans.

Even more controversial than his attitude toward Native Americans were Wayne’s views of the position of blacks in the U.S., which irritated and upset the black community.

Ebony magazine accused him of making films whose explicit message was that non-white people were the villains–which he denied.

But Wayne didn’t feel apologetic about his attitude: “I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or ten generations ago these people were slaves.” “I’m not condoning slavery,” he explained, “It’s just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can’t play football with the rest of us.”

As for his policy toward employing black actors in his movies, Wayne said, “I’ve directed two pictures and I gave the blacks their proper position. I had a black slave in The Alamo, and I had a correct number of blacks in The Green Berets.

He claimed that he was guided by clear criteria: “If it’s supposed to be a black character, naturally I use a black actor. But I don’t go so far as hunting for positions for them.”

Wayne reminded his critics that in the John Ford 1962’s Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, his character’s faithful employee was black (Woody Strody).

In reality, the casting was actually a letdown for Strody, who had played the leading role in Ford’s Western, Sergeant Routledge, which dealt with the trial of a black soldier accused of rape and murder.

Wayne provided further evidence: In the 1972 Western, The Cowboys, Roscoe Lee Browne had a relatively large role, cast as Wayne’s cook and assistant.

No matter. The under-representation of blacks in Westerns was striking considering the fact that about one fourth of the working cowboys in the nineteenth century were black.

Blacks had played bigger roles in the 1930s and 1940s in films specifically designed for black audiences. The Western, in fact, incorporated black characters into its narratives much later than the serious-problem films dealing with blacks, such as Pinky, Lost Boundaries, and Home of the Brave, all produced in the late 1940s.

Historically, it would take another decade before Westerns began to deal with black characters or black issues. And when that happened, it was a result of the realization that there was a profitable black market and a number of talented black actors (Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Ossie Davis, and Harry Belafonte) with cross-over appeal.

More irritable was Wayne’s assertion that the Hollywood studios of the 1970s “are carrying their tokenism a little too far.”

And while he believed that “there should be the same percentage of the colored race in films as in society,” he also stressed that “it can’t always be that way,” because “more than likely, ten percent haven’t trained themselves for that type of work.” “It’s just as hard for a white man to get a card in the Hollywood craft unions,” he said, which meant that it would take a long time until blacks would be more fully integrated into the film industry.

Wayne said he believed in a gradual process of integration, “we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of blacks.” At the same time, he said that considered their “resentment along with their dissent to be rightfully so.”

What irritated his black critics the most was his belief that “white supremacy should prevail 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.”

Challenged, if he were equipped to make a judgement as to “which blacks are irresponsible and which of their leaders inexperienced,” he replied: “It’s not my judgment. The academic community has developed certain tests that determine whether the blacks are sufficiently equipped scholastically.”

Thus, Wayne did not approve of blacks who tried “to force the issue and enter college when they haven’t passed the tests and don’t have the requisite background.”  He feared that by doing so, “the academic society is brought down to the lowest common denominator.”

Wayne said that he refused to believe that, “blacks have been forbidden their right to go to school,” because “they were allowed in all the public schools wherever I’ve been.”

Moreover, Wayne claimed that there was a reverse discrimination in America: “I think any black that competes with a white today gets a better break than a white man.” But he never lost his optimism about the tremendous opportunities in America: “I wish they’d tell me where in the world they have it better than right here in America.”

It is noteworthy, however, that though there are few black actors in Wayne’s films, those who worked with him later claimed that they had never heard a racist remark from him and that he always treated them as equals–on the set and off.