The Johns Committee witch hunt, Florida, 1956-1965



Inside Higher Education | 14401

In her new book “Communists and Perverts under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965”, Stacy Braukman examines the effect the crackdown had on Florida’s universities and the wider civil rights movement for blacks and gays.

Using newly released documents from the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, (the Johns Committee), Braukman follows the hunt to find and remove gay and lesbian professors and students from public colleges. Her book recounts stories of married faculty members accused of being gay testifying before the committee and begging to retain their livelihoods and jobs.

In an era defined by the attainment of equal rights and educational access for racial minorities, Braukman felt that there had little been meaningful analysis of the Johns Committee’s work against gay people.


The Johns Committee at work | Unknown photographer | State of Florida | 14402

The Johns Committee did not set out to uncover gay men and lesbians in the university system, but once they found them (in Gainesville, in 1958-59), they recognized two things: Using intimidation, informants and threats of exposure, investigators could fairly easily identify suspected homosexuals by getting witnesses to name names; and, once they started looking, they knew they were going to find them, at every university. So the committee seized upon this particular target in part because it was easier, as they discovered, than taking on the NAACP. And it also represented what was seen as a legitimate social and even national security problem at that time: predatory homosexuals.

In 1957, a state committee studying TB hospitals inadvertently uncovered the existence of homosexuals on the staff of a Tampa hospital, which led to acquiring the names of some homosexual Tampa schoolteachers and public school administrators, many of whom had attended college in Florida. It is likely that the chair of that committee, a conservative from Jacksonville, shared this information with his friend in the Florida senate, Charley Johns. A year later, Johns’s son told his father that students were talking about certain professors at the University of Florida who seemed effeminate and were rumored to be gay.

Some of the accused lost their jobs and at least one professor committed suicide.

The work of the committee has previously been examined in the film Behind closed doors.



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