restricted access 3. Surveillance and Exposure, 1959–1960
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3 Surveillance and Exposure, 1959–1960 Every time I see one of these little sissy boys hanging around some college , the more I think every one of them ought to be made to play football. What we need today is more he-men and fewer sissies. Georgia Board of Regents member Roy V. Harris, Time, 1953 The Johns Committee began 1959 as it had ended the previous year, with secret hotel room interrogations and men’s room stakeouts on the University of Florida campus and around Gainesville. By the spring, the university had removed more than a dozen professors on the grounds of homosexuality. The purge was the beginning of what would become the committee’s five-year campaign to expose and expel lesbian and gay public school teachers across the state, or, as committee attorney Mark Hawes put it, to stop “this thing” that seemed to have invaded Florida’s schools and universities.1 Florida lawmakers granted the committee another term in 1959. During those two years, while Strickland and assistant investigators fanned out across the state searching for gay and lesbian teachers, the region witnessed a shift in civil rights activism, as the staid legal approach of the NAACP gave way to student sit-ins and demonstrations throughout Florida and the South. The committee relied largely on monitoring meetings and publications, to little effect, while in the search for homosexuals, Johns and his men were wildly successful, gathering hundreds of names, questioning dozens of men and women, and pressuring many of them into surrendering their teaching jobs on the spot. Strickland’s modus operandi was to inform each suspect that resistance would be rewarded by “a subpoena to appear before this Committee in a public hearing.”2 In its p 88 · Communists and Perverts under the Palms efforts to contain civil rights activism, the committee proved largely impotent , continuing to try to prove subversive influences while remaining mired in legal battles with the NAACP. At the same time, the civil rights struggle itself was becoming more diffuse, which made it more difficult for the committee to keep tabs on the growing numbers of activists in state and local groups. * * * When Charley Johns and his committee began targeting homosexual educators, they were at once covering familiar territory and blazing new trails. Teachers had long been feared as potential carriers of political subversion . After President Harry Truman issued an executive order in 1947 establishing a loyalty-security program intended to cleanse the federal government of Communists and fellow travelers, this “project,” as historian Ellen Schrecker has written, soon filtered down into a wide range of professions and institutions. Among those most acutely affected were colleges and universities. Although professors had drawn fire and even lost their jobs as a result of their political views, actions, or affiliations, and although twenty-one states had passed laws requiring teachers to sign loyalty oaths as early as the mid-1930s, the Cold War elicited unprecedented scrutiny of the faculty and curricula of the nation’s universities.3 It also brought a new sexualized component to the regulation of teachers’ behavior outside of the classroom. The Johns Committee’s campaign against homosexual professors and teachers resembled the State Department and federal government purges from the late 1940s and 1950s. Much of the shrillest hysteria associated with McCarthyism had waned, but political subversion, gender and sex nonconformity, and the interconnectedness of the two continued to resonate in America’s political culture at the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1960s. What was new in the committee’s model was its attention to schools as a locus for battling these forces, which stemmed both from popular preoccupation with teacher loyalty, “brainwashing,” and teenagers’ vulnerability and from the fact that the South’s schools were currently the most volatile sites of radical change that the region had witnessed in a century. In late 1958 and early 1959, witnesses in the University of Florida homosexual investigation proved exceedingly cooperative in naming names and confessing misdeeds. Several faculty members’ names came up Surveillance and Exposure, 1959–1960 · 89 repeatedly. One was Lawrence Wathen, a humanities professor identified by a handful of students and instructors as an initiator of homosexual activity . John Park, a twenty-eight-year-old instructor in the Music Department and director of the men’s glee club, told Johns, Hawes, Strickland, and Tileston, all of whom had gathered in room 10 of the Hotel Thomas in early January 1959, that when he had...


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Subject Headings

  • Florida. Legislature. Legislative Investigation Committee.
  • Florida -- Politics and government -- 1951-.
  • Culture conflict -- Florida -- History.
  • Communism -- Florida -- History.
  • Homosexuality -- Florida -- History.
  • Civil rights -- Florida -- History.
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
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