Should the state now apologize for targeting gay people as a threat in the 1950s?

Named after powerful Sen. Charley Johns, the ‘Johns Committee’ operated from 1956 to 1965.
Times file photo of Charley Eugene Johns, former Florida governor and University of Florida student. Page from University of Florida Alumni Association magazine Today. List of Gators You Should Know. former Gov. Charley Eugene Johns made the list at No. 39
Times file photo of Charley Eugene Johns, former Florida governor and University of Florida student. Page from University of Florida Alumni Association magazine Today. List of Gators You Should Know. former Gov. Charley Eugene Johns made the list at No. 39
Published Feb. 19, 2019|Updated Feb. 20, 2019

For nine years, a legislative committee chaired by former Gov. Charley Johns wreaked havoc on the state’s educational system, trying to oust gay teachers and students.

The so-called Johns Committee painted a bull’s-eye on the University of South Florida in particular, claiming it was a sanctuary for “sexual deviants.”

Now Florida House Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, has filed a resolution (HCR 893) offering a “formal and heartfelt apology to those whose lives, well-being, and livelihoods were damaged or destroyed by … those who served on the committee."

Fourteen faculty members were ousted from the University of Florida and at least five from USF, and an unknown multitude had their lives upended by the committee, said historian Stacy Braukman, author of Communists and Perverts under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965.

Baukman said Jenne consulted with her on his resolution. Such an apology "has at least a symbolic importance and power," she said. "It is well worth the state of Florida taking one second … to say, 'Sorry, we overstepped our bounds.'"

RELATED: Florida apologizes to families of the Groveland Four.

In the 1950s, amid a Tallahassee bus boycott and “wade-ins” at Broward County whites-only beaches, state officials regarded civil rights activists as part of the Communist vanguard. As a result, state legislators in 1956 formed the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee.

Because the committee was chaired by jug-eared Johns, then Senate president, it became known as the Johns Committee. Among its members: a Pinellas County legislator named C.W. Bill Young, later a congressman.

"Bill told me about it right after I married him," Young's widow, Beverly, said Tuesday. "He said he didn't want to be on the committee but he was a freshman and it was an appointment, so he had no choice."

She said she too supports the resolution: "Of course I think we should apologize."

To investigate ties between Florida’s NAACP and the Communist Party, the committee subpoenaed NAACP membership lists to hunt for names of "known" communists. NAACP officials, concerned about police harassment, sued to block the demand.

RELATED: The Johns Committee and its infamy.

When its attack on the NAACP failed, the committee went after suspected gay and lesbian people in the educational system on grounds that sexual and political perversion went hand-in-hand. Committee investigators set up surveillance in the Alachua County courthouse men’s room, rumored as a pickup spot for men in search of anonymous sex.

Instead of holding open hearings, the committee members interrogated its subjects in motel rooms. With a tape recorder set up, and the investigators would say: Answer our questions here, or we’ll drag you into a public forum and expose your secrets. Nearly 1,000 talked.

The investigators conflated the definition of “homosexual" with any sexual practice they had never heard of. At one point an investigator asked a gay man, “Have you ever thought of having homosexual relations with a woman just to find out what it’s all about?”

Occasionally the committee uncovered actual crimes. In 1959, an investigator questioned inmates at a state women's prison, hearing testimony about Tampa police officers extorting sex from them and of a judge who paid for sex. The investigator didn’t act on that. He wanted dirt on teachers.

The committee branded scores of teachers and students as homosexuals and thus a threat to the state. One University of Florida professor reacted by attempting suicide. Among the University of Florida students pushed out for being gay: Rita Mae Brown, who would go on to form the influential Lavender Menace group and to write the landmark 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle.

Those who opposed the committee became targets. Investigators searched for Communist connections to Nelson Poynter, publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, which had run editorials questioning their work. They found none. When a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel criticized the committee, investigators arrested him for violating a law against oral sex. He lost his job.

In 1964, the committee put together a report called “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida.” The committee printed more than 2,000 copies, sending half of them to legislators, law enforcement officials and Florida newspapers. A blurb on the back invited any “qualified person” to buy a copy for 25 cents.

The report sported a purple cover, which led to it becoming known as “the Purple Pamphlet.” The contents included photos of a trussed-up teenage boy in a G-string and two men having a sexual encounter in a bathroom.

When word got out about what was in the Purple Pamphlet, "qualified” people around the country mailed in their quarters to Tallahassee. The Dade County state attorney declared it obscene and threatened to prosecute anyone he caught selling it. The committee's work was mocked across the nation.

A year later, the Johns Committee dissolved at last. Its files were locked away by legislators until a 1993 change in records law by the voters forced their release.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird and Times staff writer Ashley Dye contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.