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Barack Obama is a secret Muslim…subject to foreign influence…the product of race-mixing…
Gays and lesbians are a threat to our society…recruiting children to their ranks…trying to destroy the family unit…
Left-wing, elitist college professors are indoctrinating students…liberal subversives…anti-American intellectuals…
These excerpts from the right-wing conspiracy-theory echo chamber, circa the 2012 presidential campaign, find their historical echo in events and attitudes surrounding the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (FLIC), as chronicled in Stacy Braukman’s Communists and Perverts Under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965. Braukman’s book details how the FLIC—better known as the Johns Committee, after its initial chairman, state senator Charley Johns—hounded and bullied what it saw as subversive social influences, ranging from the NAACP to gay and lesbian teachers, over the course of a decade. What makes Communists and Perverts Under the Palms a penetrating read is not only its chronicling of a microcosm of the fight against civil rights, but its implications for how that fight is still by waged by cultural conservatives today.The Johns Committee was founded following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1955 as part of massive resistance against integration in the South. Initially attacking the NAACP as it challenged segregation in the courts, Johns publicly linked civil rights advocates to the Cold War-era specter of Communism and to intense public disgust for miscegenation and sexual deviancy. Similar to David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare, which highlights the conflation of gays and Communists during the McCarthy era, Braukman shows how conservative cultural forces could play on multiple public fears to try to achieve their goals.
The founders of the Johns Committee, who saw Florida Governor Leroy Collins’ anti-integration stance as insufficiently intense, created connections to the racist Citizens Councils across the deep South and began investigations in Florida cities, such as Tallahassee and Miami, where the NAACP was running bus boycotts and other civil rights actions. Throughout their investigations, which involved the questioning of large numbers of civil rights proponents, Johns made repeated accusations that Florida’s black citizens were being manipulated by outside NAACP agitators who were in turn influenced by Communist fellow travelers.
While their harassment managed to slow integration efforts in Florida, the committee was ultimately stymied by witnesses who courageously refused to testify and court cases that limited its powers. Braukman discusses how the African American civil rights movement’s tactics also diversified, from an almost exclusive emphasis on the courts to a variety of direct-action tactics that proved harder for the Johns Committee to combat.
Shifting gears, the committee focused its attention on gays and lesbians, particularly teachers, who proved easier targets for Johns’ intimidation tactics. Buoyed by the 1960 election of even more conservative governor Farris Bryant, who created an Advisory Committee on Decent Literature and sponsored a series of conferences to “eradicate indecency” and rid gays from schools and federal agencies, the Johns Committee launched full-scale investigations.
Braukman includes fascinating excerpts from interviews that find gays and lesbians, desperate to preserve their jobs and reputations, telling the Johns Committee anything they think it wants to hear. What these interviews depict are committee members with a narrow and culturally-bound understanding of homosexuality—much influenced by psychiatric depictions of gays as child molesters and sex criminals—destroying the lives of men and women with little more of an understanding of their sexuality. Braukman finds that determined gays and lesbians could and did fight off the committee’s questioning, but many more confessed and named names, scared and submitting to society’s condemnation. The assault on gays and lesbians was eventually a contributing factor in the Johns Committee’s downfall. Their infamous “Purple Report” on homosexuality in Florida, which included, among other pictures, an explicit photograph of men engaged in tearoom sex, pushed public tolerance too far, despite its confirming existing societal prejudices.
Where Braukman’s book has its greatest contemporary resonance is when it presents the legacy of the Johns Committee. In an epilogue, Braukman shows how Anita Bryant’s famous fight against the Dade County gay civil rights ordinance was foreshadowed by the rhetoric of the Johns Committee. Bryant’s campaign helped give rise to the Christian conservatives—Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson—who would come to dominate the Republican Party and the conservative movement into the present day. These forces had a history, one steeped in long-time conservative cultural fears promulgated by the Johns Committee. Communists and Perverts Under the Palms engagingly depicts how the “ideas that emerged from the confluence of anti-Communism, massive resistance, and the rise of the evangelical Right in the postwar years have displayed a breathtaking tenacity in American political culture.” It is one of the best, and the most important, books of the year.
Communists and Perverts Under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965
by Stacy Braukman
University Press of Florida
Hardcover, 9780813039824, 250 pp.