The unearthing of the Johns Committee's dirty work


Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 12:13 a.m.

Since we're celebrating Sunshine Week it's worth pointing out that Florida's public records law is an amazingly useful tool.

Better than a Swiss Army knife when you need to open up a can of worms.

I was reminded of this Monday evening, when the University of Florida's Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere hosted a discussion about an especially nauseating can of political worms; the work of the notorious Johns Committee, in the 1950s and '60s.

Long story short, the state Senate's "investigative" body, chaired by Sen. Charlie Johns, of Starke, set out on a witch-hunt to prove that the civil rights movement was a communist conspiracy.

The evening began with a screening of UF grad Allyson A. Beutke's riveting documentary: "Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Johns Committee at UF."

"We feel there is no doubt communist people are behind the racial agitators," Johns insisted in a grainy black-and-white TV interview.

But the connection between Moscow and Brown v. Board of Education turned out to be too tough a nut for Johns and his segregation sideshow to crack. And so the committee turned its attention to the business of rooting out homosexuality at UF, Florida State University and the University of South Florida.

Working with virtually no legal authority, but wielding the power of intimidation like a blunt instrument, the committee hired investigators, ran surveillance and sting operations, and yanked professors and students alike out of their classrooms for interrogation in dingy off-campus motel rooms. Before it was over, 15 UF faculty members were forced out of their jobs and dozens of students expelled.

Which is not to say that the committee acted without good cause. Why, Sen. Johns' own son, Jerome, had assured his father that UF was a "campus of evil activities."

And, really, what more evidence does a politician need?

As Johns himself remarked, "if the investigation saved one child from being made homosexual, it was worth it."

The committee's undoing began shortly after publication of its notorious "purple pamphlet," an expose' of homosexuality so explicit and filled with photos of naked men that it was itself deemed a work of pornography.

Point being that after the Johns Committee finally became an institutional embarrassment, the Florida Senate resolved to seal its 50,000 pages of documents away until all involved were safely dead; lest Floridians discover what scoundrels they had been.

The whole can of worms was kept under lock and key in the Senate Office Building. Or as USF historian Jim Schnur, who has done considerable research on the Johns Committee, likes to call it, "the SOB."

In a final bit of irony, he noted, "the records were put into a closet."

And they might be in the closet still, except that in 1992 the Florida Supreme Court ruled that even the Legislature could not avoid the disinfecting light of Florida's Sunshine laws.

And so this year is the 20th anniversary of the unearthing of the Johns Committee's dirty work.

But so what? Isn't this "Dark Legacy" just so much ancient history? Why should anybody today care about what a gang of bigots did more than half a century ago?

"The ideas of the Johns Committee are still with us today," argues Stacy Braukman, author of "Communists and Perverts under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965."

Those ideas are embedded still in a Republican National Committee platform that denounces American colleges as "zones" of leftist indoctrination. The dark legacy lingers in the right's persistent labeling of Barack Obama as a "communist."

"There is a long tradition of associating black political power with subversive activities," Braukman said.

Which is just another way of saying that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.

Which is why we need to keep our Swiss Army knife of a public records law sharp and handy.

Ron Cunningham is the former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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