Communists and Perverts under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965

Communists and Perverts under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965

Communists and Perverts under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965

Communists and Perverts under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965

Synopsis

In 1956, state Senator Charley Johns was appointed the chairman of the newly formed Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, now remembered as the Johns Committee. This group was charged with the task of unearthing communist tendencies, homosexual persuasions, and anything they saw as subversive behavior in academic institutions throughout Florida. With the cooperation of law enforcement, the committee interrogated and spied on countless individuals, including civil rights activists, college students, public school teachers, and university faculty and administrators. Today, the actions of the Johns Committee are easily dismissed as homophobic and bigoted. Communists and Perverts under the Palms reveals how the creation of the committee was a logical and unsurprising result of historic societal anxieties about race, sexuality, obscenity, and liberalism. Stacy Braukman illustrates how the responses to those societal anxieties, particularly the Johns Committee, laid the foundation for the resurgence of conservatism in the 1960s. Braukman is considered and nuanced in her stance, refusing a blanket condemnation of the extremism of a committee whose influence, even decades after its dissolution, continues to be felt in the culture wars of today.

Stacy Braukman is an independent scholar and coauthor of Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.

Excerpt

It is when communists (or any other group) are outlawed, cast into outer
darkness, and set apart from the rest of the human race that they take on
the unearthly quality of witches. They become, in the public mind, shad
owy and ill defined, the personification of evil and wrong. and people, in
all their frailty, identify such proclaimed demons with anyone or any idea
they fear and hate.

Anne Braden, “House Un-American Activities Committee:
Bulwark of Segregation,” 1963

In 2002 in the pages of the New York Times, the poet Campbell McGrath asked of Florida, “Why here? Why psychopaths and terrorists, upsidedown elections and general weirdness? Is it the unrootedness of people, the extraordinariness of the landscape, the lack of seasons that untether you from the past?” It might have been all of those things. Florida’s history is replete with the unrooted, the fugitive, the quixotic. the landscape is extraordinary, though not by the usual measures. It is extraordinary in its flatness, drenching heat, and, before the advent of air conditioning and mosquito repellent, its general inhospitableness. the state’s saving grace, and indeed its main draw since Henry Flagler’s palatial hotels and railroads appeared in the 1880s to cater to well-to-do visitors, has always been its sparkling beaches and abounding sunshine. At first a tropical vacation land for the wealthy, Florida became an increasingly affordable and popular destination, a place where growing numbers of Americans went to the beach, looked to make a fresh start, or retired.

But by the twentieth century’s end, many had begun to wonder, What happened to Florida? Less a successor to the postwar California dream than a modern Sunbelt nightmare, Florida had come to be known for bizarre characters, outlandish crimes, and sensationalized spectacles.

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