Perspective: The Johns Committee and its infamy

Published November 5 2015
Updated November 5 2015

Fifty years ago, during the summer of 1965, higher education in Pinellas County gained new life with the creation of the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. That same year, a less inspiring institution, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, mercifully lost its funding and passed into history.

Known infamously as the Johns Committee, the FLIC was the brainchild of Charley Johns. A state senator from the northeast Florida town of Starke, Johns served as acting governor from 1955 to 1956, a seedtime of political turmoil and rising agitation for civil rights in a state where the practice of Jim Crow segregation had dominated social mores for three quarters of a century.

In 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court's monumental Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision, Johns and other traditionalists were alarmed by the Tallahassee bus boycott, a nonviolent direct-action offshoot of the more famous Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that had recently propelled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to the forefront of the American civil rights movement.

In response to this perceived threat to the social order, Johns invested the FLIC with extraordinary investigative powers similar to those employed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, the nation's leading anticommunist crusader during the early 1950s. To Johns, as to McCarthy, racial agitation, like most forms of disorder, was rooted in a worldwide communist conspiracy that depended, in part, on domestic subversives.

In Florida, as elsewhere, this nefarious fifth column of "reds" and "pinkos" allegedly could be found in any number of institutions, including black churches, labor unions, schools and government agencies. But over time Johns and his compatriots came to believe that disloyal teachers — especially leftist, iconoclastic instructors at colleges and universities — were the most dangerous conspirators of all.

To the FLIC, the heart of the anti-American conspiracy was the corrupting indoctrination of vulnerable students by politically radical and, in some cases, morally degenerate teachers. By the early 1960s (Republican state senator and future congressman Bill Young joined the committee in 1962), the committee's attention had turned to political and moral subversion at the state's four public universities — the University of Florida, Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and the recently created University of South Florida. While racial agitation was still a concern, the original investigation of civil rights groups such as the NAACP had evolved into a broader search for classroom subversives, including homosexuals.

The result was a no-holds-barred assault on individual rights, intellectual tolerance and academic freedom. The committee's investigators interrogated hundreds of students, teachers and administrators — often in semi-secret off-campus locations — as a climate of fear and intimidation descended upon the state university system.

Predictably, this latter-day "witch hunt" yielded scores of alleged perpetrators judged to be dangerous free thinkers, communist fellow travelers or sexual deviants. In the end, many were fired. Losing their livelihoods and reputations as valued members of the university community, they were cast aside as toxic threats to civic and moral order.

One of the saddest aspects of the Johns Committee affair was that most state university administrators refused to stand up for the rights of their embattled colleagues. This was especially true at the state's three oldest universities. The only institution to mount anything resembling sustained resistance to the Johns Committee was USF, where president John Allen tried to block the investigators' most outrageous excesses and where a few faculty members spoke up for academic freedom and civil rights.

Unfortunately, their efforts had little impact and were ultimately judged to be woefully insufficient by the American Association of University Professors, which placed USF on its academic freedom "blacklist" for four years. During this dark period, the AAUP warned job candidates away from USF as an institution unable to protect its faculty on matters of academic freedom.

Combined with the Johns Committee's assault on academic freedom, the AAUP blacklist designation could have destroyed USF in its infancy. But it did not. By the late 1970s, under the leadership of presidents Cecil Mackey and John Lott Brown and a vigilant faculty union dedicated to due process and free speech, the university had recovered its balance and momentum.

In the ensuing decades, USF evolved into a vibrant multicampus system with nearly 50,000 students, an important part of a 12-member State University System devoted to educational opportunity, open intellectual discourse and the marketplace of ideas.

Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and chairman of the Department of History and Politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. A year after his graduation from Fernandina Beach High School in 1965, the Nassau County School Board, clearly influenced by the Johns Committee, refused to renew the contract of his favorite English teacher, Carolyn Phanstiel, who was told she was "too liberal" and "too controversial" to teach in a public high school in Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

 
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