The Phoenix Flyer

Lawmaker advances a state apology for the Johns Committee that targeted civil rights leaders and LGBTQ Floridians

By: - August 2, 2019 3:22 pm

The Johns Committee meeting in 1964 Credit: Florida state archives

In an effort to acknowledge and move past one of the darkest phases of Florida’s 20th Century history, a state senator has filed a resolution calling on the Legislature to apologize for the notorious Johns Committee’s investigation targeting civil rights leaders, academic leaders and LGBTQ Floridians in the 1950s and 1960s.

Broward County Democratic Sen. Lauren Book has filed the measure (SCR 74) for the 2020 session, which begins in January. It calls upon lawmakers to acknowledge “the injustices perpetrated against the targets of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee between 1956 and 1965 and offers a formal and heartfelt apology to those whose lives, well-being, and livelihoods were damaged or destroyed by the activities and public pronouncements of those who served on the committee.”

The panel was better known as the Johns Committee, named after state Sen. Charley Johns, who was the first chairman of the committee and who also served as Florida’s governor from 1953 to 1955.

The committee initially focused on civil rights leaders and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1957 and 1958, the committee “devoted itself to besmirching NAACP members as criminals and communist sympathizers in order to slow or halt their efforts to desegregate Florida schools and public spaces,” the resolution says.

By late 1958, the legislative committee turned its focus on the University of Florida. With the cooperation from the school and its police force, the committee launched an investigation into alleged homosexual activity at the school. The investigation “entrapped and intimidated dozens of individuals on and off campus, interrogating them in motel rooms and basements, resulting in the firing of 14 faculty and staff at UF,” the resolution says.

In 1959, the committee issued a report alleging “homosexual professors were recruiting students into ‘homosexual practices,’ and they in turn were becoming teachers in Florida’s public school system and recruiting even younger students,” the resolution says.

It resulted in a four-year, statewide investigation into alleged homosexual activity in the public school system, resulting in the state revoking teaching licenses, the resolution says.

In 1961, the committee launched an investigation into the University of South Florida, trying to gather “information about the allegedly anti-Christian, pro-integration, and pro-communist slant of reading assignments, classroom lectures and invited campus speakers,” the resolution says.

In 1964 and 1965, the committee published “misleading and inflammatory reports about homosexuals and civil rights activists in Florida,” the resolution says.

The resolution notes that over the course of nine years, the Johns Committee “at the expense of the taxpayers of this state using unconstitutional and unjust methods to discredit and combat legal, peaceful desegregation efforts; to destroy or otherwise jeopardize the livelihoods and reputations of educators, administrators, and other professionals in Florida’s public schools and universities; and to create a climate of fear that caused pain and suffering among vulnerable residents and made Florida a national symbol of intolerance.”

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.