The Johns’ Committee – McCarthyism in Florida

On this week’s Florida History Podcast we discuss Charley Johns and the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee. We felt this was particularly timely given some of the onerous legislation now being heard at the capitol.

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Some background:

Senator Charley Johns (D-Starke) is one of the best known figures in the Florida Political History for multiple dubious reasons. The leader of the infamous “Pork Chop Gang”. Johns became Governor in 1953 after Governor Dan McCarty the first Governor elected from southern Florida died just months after taking office. Prior to 1968, Florida had no Lieutenant Governor and the Senate President became Governor.

Johns was a reactionary Governor just as he had been in the Senate but in 1954, when he ran to complete McCarty’s term he was beaten in the Democratic Primary to Leroy Collins of Tallahassee who proved to be the first “New South” Governor in the country.

Returning to the Senate, Johns and his allies who controlled the legislature looked to emulate McCarthyism and take advantage of the growing discontent in Florida with the Civil Rights movement. Rural Florida was according to Kari A. Frederickson in his seminal 2001 work ” The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South: 1932 – 1968,” in the early 1950’s one of the most violent and racist areas of the South. While Florida was becoming increasingly urban and cosmopolitan (Florida was the most urban state in the South in 1950, as it remains today) the legislature was malapportioned and controlled by rural North Florida. For example, House members were elected by county so even though Dade County had about 20% of the state’s population in 1960 it had scarcely more representation than Liberty County. As a bloc, rural areas north of Ocala controlled the process

Repeatedly in the period from 1955 to 1960, the “Pork Choppers” sent hard core segregationist legislation to the Governor, including a bill that would have closed Florida’s Public Schools down rather than integrate. When Governor Collins vetoed that bill, the legislature passed an “interposition” resolution which Collins strongly objected to but had no authority to veto. This resolution copied those already passed in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Johns had seen the success of Rep. Martin Dies (D-Texas), House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and sought to emulate it in Florida. Looking to investigate Civil Rights groups and “Communists,”  the Johns Committee (known officially as “The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee”) set up shop in the racially charged atmosphere of 1956. The stated goal of the committee was to “investigate all organizations whose principles or activities include a course of conduct on the part of any person or group which could constitute violence, or a violation of the laws of the state, or would be inimical to the well being and orderly pursuit of their personal and business activities by the majority of the citizens of this state.” 

In other words the goal of the Committee was to stop the Civil Rights movement. One of the first actions of the Committee was to target Florida A&M facility who had been active in the Tallahassee Bus Boycott of 1956. The next target was the NAACP who were required to turn over their membership lists to the committee. The NAACP had seen a list of members discovered by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall fall into the hands of the local Ku Klux Klan, so the national organization went to court and won a US Supreme Court ruling that prevented Johns’ from acquiring the lists. McCall who will be the subject of a future “Flashback Friday” was one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the state throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The committee continued investigating Civil Rights organizations but in the early 1960s began focusing on Homosexuality as well. At the time merely being gay was illegal in the state and Johns was determined to “out” any trace of homosexuality in the state’s university system.

The committee attacked almost every aspect of life on a university campus in order to uncover homosexual acts and also to limit academic freedom. Works of literature that promoted equality of African-Americans or had what the committee deemed “pornographic” materials were scrutinized.

In 1964 the committee issued the infamous “Purple Pamphlet” officially known as “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida.” I cannot do justice to the descriptive nature of this document so I will let Wikipedia do the rest.

Governor Farris Bryant of Ocala who succeeded Collins served from 1961 to 1965. He pursued an agenda that increased educational opportunities but defended racial segregation. His policies were not as progressive as Collins’ were and he did not have the vision for Florida that his predecessor did. But once the new Florida Constitution was implemented in 1968 and the legislature was apportioned based on population, things changed and the 1970’s were to be a Golden Era of Florida politics.

The Johns Committee is a blot on Florida’s history and again demonstrated the reactionary nature in the 1950’s and 1960’s of Democrats from rural areas. While Florida was moving forward into a shining city on the hill when compared to the rest of the region under Johns’ successor as Governor Leroy Collins, the “Pork Chop Gang” and allied legislators kept Florida looking like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia politically. But the 1970’s would change things, a subject we have covered before on this website and certainly will again in the future.

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