Florida’s First War on Woke Part One: The Johns Committee

Johns Committee namesake and chairman Charley Johns (center) discusses plans to screen out homosexuals from employment in state government and colleges with B. R. Tilley (left), President of St. Johns River Junior College at Palatka, and A. E. Mikell (right), superintendent of the Levy County schools, 1963. Photo by The original uploader was Textorus at English Wikipedia, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “War on Woke” is nothing new in Florida. Although many point to Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign as the forerunner, the War on Woke started with the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee, popularly known as the “Johns Committee.”

Active from 1956 to 1965 and initially headed by Charley E. Johns, a conservative “pork-chop” state senator from North Florida, the committee originally fought efforts of school integration by attempting to show that Civil Rights Movement was full of Communists. However, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Committee access to the membership records of the state’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Frustrated, the Committee in 1958 turned its efforts towards investigating the presence of homosexuals in the state universities and schools. At that time homosexuality and homosexuals were just coming into larger public awareness. Most people knew little about them and, like Communists, they were seen as a threat to “the American Way of Life.”  Newspaper accounts used words like “deviates” and “perverts.” It was estimated that there were 45,000-60,000 homosexuals in Florida.

At first the Committee focused on homosexual activities at the state’s major universities. Students accused male professors because they had lunch together or wore Bermuda shorts on campus. Students, both men and women, suspected of being homosexual, were removed from their college classrooms and taken to off-campus motel rooms and interrogated by the committee’s investigators. Sometimes the interrogations lasted up to 10 hours. Those interrogated were not allowed lawyers or informed of their rights. College administrators cooperated with the committee, threatening to expel students who would not give names.

The Committee investigators also looked at what college professors were teaching their students. One student complained about having to read J. Dollard’s “Caste and Class in A Southern Town,” a classic 1937 sociological study because it talked about the prejudice that southern people had towards Negroes. Also she had to watch a film that showed “Negro men and white women together, holding hands.” Another complained about having to read “Catcher in the Rye.” The Committee argued that University professors corrupted students by having them read such “trashy and pornographic” works as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Brave New World.” One professor was suspended for having his class read articles about Jack Kerouac and other beat writers. When the professor appealed, the university governing board adopted a policy mandating university administrator to be “on guard against activities subversive to the American democratic process and against immoral behavior, such as sex deviation.” 

Then Florida Gov. Farris Bryant commended the Committee’s work for bringing the threat of homosexuals before the Florida public. In 1961 he appointed the state Florida Commission on Children which, over the next two years, held 16 public meetings across the state. Those attending heard about how to recognize a homosexual and what danger they presented. Children were seen as the primary targets of homosexuals. In the conference presentations there was an easy conflation molestation and predatory sex criminals with homosexuals. The public hearings also focused on pornography. According to the assistant director of the Commission obscene materials, such as photographs and movies served as “warm-ups” in seducing youngsters into homosexual acts.

By 1963, the Johns Committee could boast of having caused the firing of 39 professors and deans, as well as the revoking of teaching certificates for 71 public school teachers, all suspected or admitted homosexuals. Scores of students were interrogated and subsequently expelled from public colleges across the state as well.

The state legislature saw the committee’s work as important. That year they renewed the committee’s life for two more years and doubled the Committee’s budget. The Committee’s staff began working on a report, bringing together all the evidence they collected about Florida’s homosexuals. They also began re-writing Florida’s antiquated sex-crime laws in order to bring them up-to-date to be more easily used. Soon they would produce a report about Florida’s homosexuals that would shock and outrage citizens across the state.


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