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Introduction Where the Sunbelt Meets the Old South 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, shadowy 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?”1 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. 2 · Communists and Perverts under the Palms Breathless media coverage of the murderous spree and execution of Aileen Wuornos, the televised manhunt for the gay murderer of Gianni Versace in South Beach, the international custody battle over little Elián González, and September 11 ringleader Mohammad Atta’s purported preattack strip-club binge—to name only a very few—left many wondering if Carl Hiaasen had been too generous to the Sunshine State in his fictional portrayals of political graft and nutty residents. In 2000, round-the-clock cable news channels even managed to make “hanging chads” in Florida a national punch line out of alleged malfeasance by Republican officials, including secretary of state Katherine Harris, which tipped the balance in a close and acrimonious presidential election. It bears mentioning that Harris is the granddaughter of citrus baron and politician Ben Hill Griffin Jr., who in the early 1960s served on the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (FLIC), a body forged in the heat of the South’s resistance against integration, a forerunner in the modern culture wars, and the subject of this book.2 Until the summer of 1993, few people, in Florida or anywhere else, knew about the committee. But with the release of thousands of pages of FLIC documents on July 1, Floridians discovered a chapter in the state’s history that most saw as appalling. The opening of the records itself became a sensation, as journalists flocked to the state archives in Tallahassee to comb through documents, find the most eye-popping quotes from interrogation transcripts, and tell the stories of those most egregiously victimized by the committee. Their reporting focused on the FLIC’s most outrageous and unconstitutional practices, as well as what looked to modern eyes like brazen racism and homophobia. Labeled “notorious,” “infamous ,” and “evil,” as having been engaged in “witch hunts” and “Gestapo” and “police state” tactics, the committee’s existence, removed though it was by nearly thirty years, became yet another damning piece of evidence of Florida’s dark underbelly.3 * * * From frontier outpost to prepackaged paradise, Florida has always been buffeted by demographic tumult—colonial conquest by vying European powers, Seminole Indian expulsion, speculative land and real estate schemes, influxes and exoduses that left an ever-shrinking proportion of native-born residents—and this undercurrent of transience has led to Florida’s marginalized status in U.S. and southern history. Generally Introduction: Where the Sunbelt Meets the Old South · 3 speaking, Florida has tended to appear fleetingly and tangentially in both national and regional narratives. Yet if we want to understand the political culture of the United States in the second half of the twentieth...


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