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Out of DARKNESS

If it happened today, the Johns Committee's work would be called "outing."

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, using taxpayers' money, the committee identified and rooted out more than 100 schoolteachers and university professors who were homosexuals.

Informants, some of them gay and lesbian, were paid to lure friends and acquaintances into sexual liaisons. In some cases, there were pictures. The unsuspecting student would be confronted by a college official, interviewed and expelled. The teacher had his or her teaching certificate revoked. The professor lost his or her job. It's assumed many left out of shame or fear.

The Johns Committee's work has resided in a black hole in Florida's history. No one was allowed to see the records. Until now. The people of Florida removed the shroud in 1992, when they approved a constitutional amendment requiring all legislative records to be open to the public.

On July 1, anyone who wants to can see the documents that chronicle the nine-year period when Florida government identified, photographed and spied on its citizens.

In a windowless room in the basement of the Senate Office Building, three college students already are going over the transcripts line by line. Their task is to protect the identities of targets, witnesses and informants, which will remain secret. They have used up boxes of black markers, excising names.

"There's no way citizens would stand for these kind of questions today," said Colleen Doherty, a senior at Florida State University.

But stand for them they did from 1956 through 1965, for they had little choice. In many cases, interrogators promised them immunity from criminal investigation. They could be kicked out of school or lose their jobs, but they wouldn't go to jail.

Forty-five boxes of records hold the details of the Johns Committee, named for a state senator from Starke. The committee, born during the peak of the Red Scare, was charged with the responsibility of investigating communism and communist "fronts" in Florida, communist or socialist infiltration into the NAACP, and homosexuality in the schools.

While transcripts of the interviews have remained locked away, the general picture of the committee's work is available in biennial reports that have been public for years.

Defenders of civil liberties and open government applaud the opening of the remaining records. That it was a dark and shameful period is all the more reason to reveal the period's secrets.

"I think it would permit light in where there was before only darkness," said Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Citizens will see the danger of allowing government to operate surreptitiously, what results from unchecked investigative power of a legislative committee, and will be better armed to protect against it in the future."

Evils in America

Charley Johns was the son of a deputy sheriff who lost his life in the line of duty. He abhorred the evils creeping up on America in the mid-1950s: the rise of the communist bloc, the power of the unions, communist and socialist sympathies in corners of college campuses, the unrest and protest of the civil rights movement, homosexuals teaching our sons and daughters in school.

Johns had "kind of a high, raspy voice," recalled Senate Secretary Joe Brown, and was prone to give voice on the Senate floor to the evil on the march. "He kind of launched into it with all his might. Unless you really liked his voice, it got to be kind of irritating."

Some people viewed the Johns Committee with disdain. The name itself had a comical triple meaning, Brown said. The committee members targeted homosexual acts that took place in johns in public places. Customers of prostitutes are called johns.

Because he was Senate president, Johns had ascended to serve as Florida governor in 1953 upon the death of Gov. Dan T. McCarty. (Florida had no lieutenant governor then.) Johns served only two years, failing to win the job the next election. He went back to the Senate and became known more than he would have liked for his Florida Legislative Investigative Committee.

"I wish I'd never got in it," Johns, who died in 1990, told a reporter in 1977. "I wish I'd been naive and never knowed all that about homosexuals. I didn't know nothing about lesbianism before that."

Among the committee members still living is C.

W. "Bill" Young, who was then in the state Senate and now represents St. Petersburg in Congress. Young, who could not be reached for comment Friday, told the Miami Herald in 1991: "I thought the whole thing was in very poor taste."

The Johns Committee had the power to compel people to answer questions. Its scope was broad. It could investigate organizations "whose principles or activities include a course of conduct on the part of any person or group which could constitute violence or a violation of the laws of the state."

Minutes available show the committee members, Johns especially, defensive about negative press coverage. The meetings and investigative records were closed. Only Johns was authorized to talk to the press.

"They must have known their activities bordered on police-state tactics," Blumner said.

Thirty years ago, the committee was certain that gays and lesbians posed a threat that had to be banished from classrooms.

The number of "practicing homosexuals" in schools and colleges "is much more substantial than is generally believed," says a 1961 biennial report of the Johns Committee. "The practicing homosexual is, almost entirely, the product of environment, association and practice and is not the product of glandular or physical derangement as is popularly believed."

Even today, debate continues on environmental versus genetic factors in homosexuality.

Given a foundation the Johns Committee states as fact, it's logical to see why the public might endorse its work.

"Practicing homosexuals almost invariably turn to the recruitment of young people as sex partners eventually," the committee said. "Practically all children are susceptible to being recruited into homosexual practices at one stage or another of their development."

What parent would argue with this: "A homosexual teacher, having direct supervision over numerous children, can and does do tremendous damage to quite a large group of children when the teacher turns to the recruitment of young sex partners."

The committee worried that teachers caught molesting pupils were allowed to resign quietly. There was no record of the incident, and the teacher could move on to another county and work as a teacher again.

The 1961 report said that in the preceding two years, the committee's work resulted in the firing of 39 public schoolteachers, with 14 revocation cases pending. The committee said it had "sworn testimony concerning homosexual conduct (by) in excess of 75 additional" teachers.

Seven faculty members at the state's universities had been identified as homosexuals. That came on top of 15 staff members at the University of Florida fired as a result of the committee's work.

Reports blended the most outrageous cases with those such as a college professor mentioned as having attended a party where homosexuals gathered.

The committee disclosed it had evidence of a call ring of boys in an unnamed large county. "The men involved convert young schoolboys between the ages of 13 and 17 to homosexual practices," the 1961 report said. "When properly trained, they are made available to older homosexuals the same as female prostitutes."

Investigators said they recovered nude pictures of the boys in "every conceivable act of sexual deviation."

Surely such revelations kept the committee going, despite lingering doubts about what it was doing to innocent people.

The committee stirred up controversy with its report in March 1964. It featured on the first page a photograph of a homosexual man tied up against a wall. Toward the back was an entire page of photos: 20 young boys in underwear. The purple pamphlet, as it became known, turned the public against the committee.

Floridians wrote letters urging then-Gov. Farris Bryant to recall copies of the report already mailed out and destroy them all. The pamphlet was "just as damaging to the depraved mind as any so-called pornographic material."

A year later, in February 1965, the committee reacted defensively. It labeled as false news reports that the pamphlet had been banned in Dade County, that it had been sold to young children and that the furor had forced the halt of its release.

"Had the report been mimeographed, it would likely have never received more than passing attention," the Johns Committee said. The "great hue and cry centered on its purple cover and illustrations."

The NAACP

The Johns Committee met stronger and more effective resistance from civil rights activists than it did from homosexuals.

NAACP employees refused to answer the investigators' questions. They refused to turn over membership lists. The committee prevailed in a Florida Supreme Court ruling, but that was under appeal to the federal courts. The records show the NAACP was effective through the courts in blocking the committee's intrusive questioning, although clearly many depositions were taken and reports compiled about NAACP activities.

"The NAACP," the committee said in 1959, "has been the prime target of communist penetration for the past 30 years." Charley Johns didn't get too far in proving that or in proving the threat the civil rights movement posed.

The committee wanted to know what the Ku Klux Klan and other subversives were doing too. "The committee strenuously condemns the use of violence by the Klan or any other group."

The 1965 report contains a chapter on a man named Fenton Potito, who lived with his parents in St. Petersburg, ran an appliance repair shop and allegedly recruited a Christian Youth Corps to fight communism. Potito was a featured speaker at a KKK rally. He spread talk of a youth army, hidden stashes of weapons and ammunition and guerrilla warfare against "communist Jews."

Investigators concluded "his military units are a sham and his claims a fraud on those from whom he solicits funds." But the Johns Committee viewed Potito with much less alarm than it viewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"In the meantime, he (Potito) should be regarded by all good citizens as one of the prices we all must pay for the freedoms of speech and action we enjoy and seek to preserve."

USF

The University of South Florida was in its infancy when Johns Committee investigators came banging on the door.

"It was a very difficult time for the university," recalled longtime USF librarian Mary Lou Harkness, now retired. "The university was very new. The community had real reservations about the university. They were proud to have the university here, (but) there was really some concern about these liberal- minded faculty."

The heavy-handed tactics of the investigators set the campus on edge, academically and politically. Mrs. Harkness and her husband, Don, now deceased, but then chapter president of the American Association of University Professors, fought for academic freedom against a committee that wanted to ban books by J.

D. Salinger.

"A lot of people who were very fine people were very badly hurt during this whole period," she said.

According to one report, USF administrators blocked the speech of a professional football quarterback "because he might incite the student body to favor intercollegiate football," but let poet Archibald MacLeish speak and "ignored his involvement with 38 communist fronts."

Blumner, the ACLU official, said USF was hit harder by the Johns Committee because it was less established.

"USF was one of the worst abusers," she said. "They were the most cowed into flushing out anyone who may have had the appearance of subversive activity."

Mrs. Harkness, 67, said USF president John S. Allen tried to tread the line between academic freedom and the powerful North Florida legislators who created the Johns Committee.

"We should know what distortion and witch hunting our Legislature was involved in," Blumner said. "Citizens have the right to know the length legislators went to legislate morality and destroy the reputations of good people who didn't fit the mold of the Norman Rockwell American."

On July 1, Floridians will know.

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