'Communists and Perverts'

A new book explores a Florida legislative committee that targeted gay students and professors in the 1950s and '60s.

April 27, 2012

In what started as a crackdown on pro-racial integration factions in Florida's colleges, gay students and professors quickly became the targets of a years-long hunt to eliminate "sexual deviance" in the state's public classrooms.

In Communists and Perverts under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965, independent scholar 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, commonly called the Johns Committee, Braukman follows the efforts to find and remove gay and lesbian professors and students from public colleges. Her book, published by the University Press of Florida, 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 wrote that there had little been meaningful analysis of the Johns Committee's work against gay people. The author agreed to answer some questions from Inside Higher Ed.

Q: Your book looks at the broader picture of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee and in particular its focus on homosexuality. Much of its work centered on universities, where legislators sought to root out gay students and faculty members. Why do you think colleges were a target?

A: Marxist, communist and leftist professors and students had been a source of concern to legislators around the country since the 1930s. This intensified after World War II, with a marked increase in university investigations, self-policing and loyalty oath requirements, and with people like Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover fanning the flames of suspicion of communist infiltration of college campuses. In the South, you also saw universities targeted for harboring faculty and students sympathetic to integration, membership in the NAACP and so on. This was the stage that had been set for the Johns Committee beginning in 1956. The first investigation stemmed from a bus boycott in Tallahassee, in which professors and students from the historically black Florida A&M University played a significant role. As they dug deeper, they discovered that a small number of white students at Florida State University were also involved, and that proved even more alarming to segregationists on the committee and in the capital city.

Similarly, there was a historical precedent for scrutinizing the morals and personal behavior of university faculty and students, just as there were broader social concerns over the corrupting influence of homosexuals on young people. In Florida, 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.

Q: Would you compare the reaction of administrators at the Universities of Florida and South Florida when their institutions became the subject of these investigations?

A: The nature, scope, and level of public awareness of each of these investigations were very different, which helps explain administrators’ very different responses. At the University of Florida, beginning in 1958, the Johns Committee had the cooperation of President J. Wayne Reitz and the university police department. The committee enlisted one of UF’s officers, John Tileston, to assist investigators on campus. He participated in sting operations set up in campus restrooms and other public spaces, and he helped interrogate suspects in closed-door, secret questioning. In early 1959, when it became publicly known that 14 faculty and staff members had been fired because of homosexuality, Reitz defended his record on protecting the university from this menace.

The situation three years later at the University of South Florida differed in several ways. President John Allen (who had been UF’s vice president during the Johns Committee investigation there) refused to allow the committee to question students in secret. In fact, the committee had been doing just that, in a Tampa motel room, and Allen insisted that they move to a campus location where public hearings could be held. So, his strategy was effective in bringing the actual substance of the investigation to the public’s attention. And once that happened, many people in the Tampa Bay area, the state and beyond were surprised and then outraged. This was due in large part to the fact that the committee was now questioning professors about the books they assigned, the films they showed and the language they used in their classrooms. At the same time, a sizable number of Floridians came to believe that, in fact, USF was too liberal, too permissive of obscene language and atheism and integration, and soft on communism. Allen was unable to keep the lid on the battles over academic freedom that resulted, and the publicity surrounding the hearings gave USF the appearance of being a controversial place.

Q: What can today’s administrators learn from your book, both in how they accommodate gay students and faculty members and how they might react if their college became the target of a morally objectionable investigation?

A: At many public universities and non-religious private universities, obviously to varying degrees, there has been a sea change when it comes to gay students and faculty. Non-discrimination policies, campus organizations and gay history courses, combined with the simple fact that younger generations today are generally less concerned about homosexuality than their elders, have all contributed to a more accepting climate. It is impossible to generalize, though. And there are clearly many college campuses where it is still difficult for students to feel safe being out, and where bullying and harassment occur. Without some uniform, top-down mandate, change on that front will continue to occur unevenly across regions, communities,and campuses.

I hope change does continue, though — that accommodation and providing safe spaces become commonplace. It’s difficult for me to imagine the sort of investigations conducted by the Johns Committee happening today, but you never know. I didn’t expect to hear accusations of “socialist” directed toward the President of the United States, or to hear a Republican presidential candidate talk about universities as liberal “indoctrination mills” in 2012, but that’s exactly what happened. There is no reason to think that universities will stop being political lightning rods, particularly during periods of heightened national security concerns -- as we saw during the so-called war on terror during the previous decade.

Q: How did the Johns Committee diverge from its original mission, investigating those who supported integration, to homosexuality? Was the targeting of gays in colleges related to the integration movements at some universities, as you suggest it might have been at South Florida?

A: There is no clear evidence in the committee’s records indicating precisely how and why this divergence occurred. There are indications that this was not carefully planned and executed against supporters of integration, but rather that the issue fell into the committee’s lap, so to speak. In 1957, a state committee studying tuberculosis 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. There was no need to use the gay investigations as a pretense, because the committee had in fact uncovered things that the public would actually be anxious about.

At USF, what drew the committee’s attention were parents complaining about the insufficiently Christian campus and classroom environment; objectionable and obscene assigned readings; and faculty members’ softness on communism. In addition, individual members of the Johns Committee were irritated that one professor had been vocal in his praise for the university being integrated. So, these issues were at the forefront at USF, and homosexuality was secondary. But for conservatives, they were all part of what felt like a broad assault on their values, and the university was seen as an instrument of corrupting influence on young minds.

Q: What was the lasting impact of the Johns Committee on Florida’s universities?

A: It’s difficult to measure the impact. At the time of the investigations, there were students, faculty, administrators, and concerned citizens pointing out publicly that the Johns Committee, left unchecked, was going to make a laughingstock of higher education in Florida; that it would discourage bright students from applying and talented professors from working in the state system. Also in the short run, the committee’s activities and the resulting publicity inspired the Board of Control (the precursor to today’s Board of Governors) in 1963 to issue a revised “Policy on Academic Freedom and Responsibility,” which codified vigilance against subversive teaching and homosexuality. It is reasonable to assume that some professors would have steered clear of Florida’s universities during and just after the committee’s years of operation (1956 to 1965).

Historical memory can be short. It wouldn’t surprise me if, less than a generation later, the committee was a faint echo (at least for those not victimized by it), chalked up to Florida’s fleeting surrender to the hysterical grip of McCarthyism. What probably made more of an impact on the state’s universities over the long term was the persistent underfunding by the legislature that kept Florida less competitive than it might otherwise have been.

Q: The witch hunt mentality of these legislators and the contents of their reports would be offensive to many modern readers. Why didn’t the committee draw wider public scorn in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

A: The short answer is that people didn’t know the full extent of the committee’s activities at the time. Even with the NAACP investigations, Floridians would have read about the public hearings in the papers, but they didn’t know, for example, that the committee was paying informants to infiltrate mass meetings, or taking down license plate numbers and harassing drivers who carpooled during the Tallahassee bus boycott. This became even more pronounced when the committee shifted to secretive, motel-room and basement interrogations, or when they set up decoys in public bathrooms to entrap men searching for anonymous sexual encounters -- at courthouses, at bus stations, in college facilities. The public was not aware of the full range of the committee’s unconstitutional tactics, or the mentality behind them.

Just as important, though, is the fact that the committee was both enmeshed in and a product of the culture of its time and place, and in 1956 few people in the Deep South were standing up to advocate school desegregation or racial equality. Most would sympathize with, or at least understand, why a legislative committee was investigating anyone who did advocate those things. Similarly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the height of the committee’s gay investigations, public outcry on behalf of homosexuals’ rights would have been almost unheard of. Once the Johns Committee’s tactics and targets came to light at USF in 1962-63, public criticism began in earnest. When the committee released the controversial and lurid report, Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, in 1964, that criticism became widespread and really sealed the committee’s fate. So, it was a combination of increased awareness and growing discomfort with what the committee was actually doing.

Q: Many public universities now offer resource centers and discrimination protections for gay and lesbian students and majors in gay studies. Evaluate the progress made since the FLIC folded and also what universities must continue to work on.

A: It speaks volumes about how things have changed in the last five decades that the Princeton Review now includes the categories “LGBT friendly” and “LGBT unfriendly” in its yearly college rankings. Some universities are now actively recruiting LGBT students. These are extraordinary developments, and they reflect the increasing cultural acceptance of sexual and gender difference. They also reflect a proactive, vibrant movement among students themselves to call upon administrators to promote inclusiveness and provide safer spaces on campuses. I think it’s important that those voices continue to be heard, and that those protections and resources remain in place -- until the day comes when they are no longer necessary. The irony is that this outcome, the normalization of same-sex desire, is precisely what bothers social conservatives about the liberal “indoctrination” they see taking place in colleges and universities, so it’s safe to assume that the critics aren’t going away any time soon.


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