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Retrospective Looks at Infamous 'Johns Committee'

USF St. Petersburg
Former FL acting Governor & State Sen. Charley Johns led the "Johns Committee" in the late 1950's and 60s.

UPDATED 3:30 PM 11/12/15 - Updated with interview with USF St. Petersburg Special Collections Librarian Jim Schnur

Fifty years ago, a state investigative committee shut down after years of work that threatened Florida's college system, including a then-fledgling University of South Florida.

USF is taking a look back this week at the role it played in helping stop the effort to target tate university faculty and students it deemed as subversive, including civil rights groups, homosexuals and suspected communists.

The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee was also known as the Johns Committee, named for acting Florida Governor and State Senator Charley Johns

It followed in the footsteps of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's investigation into suspected communists in the 1950s. During the late 1950s and early 60s, the committee's work led to dozens of professors, deans and public school teachers being fired or having their teaching certificates revoked. A large number of students also were expelled.

USF St. Petersburg Special Collections Librarian James Schnur says USF was a new university, having been established in 1956. As a result, it didn't have backing of many lawmakers and could have been destroyed by the committee's work.

Credit Frank Noel / AP Photo/State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
AP Photo/State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
USF President John S. Allen spoke to a joint legislative Senate-House session on April 24, 1963, and denied that any USF faculty or staff member member or any student had been identified by the Johns committee as a communist. Sen. Tom Whitaker, of Tampa, is on the left, Senate President Wilson Carraway sits behind Allen.

"But largely through the work of the faculty, the work of the students and President John Allen, USF became the first public university in the state university system that successfully pushed back against the Johns Committee," Schnur said.

That, in turn, led other universities to act.

"Really, in a large measure, (USF) help(ed) to encourage others in the academic institutions throughout Florida to rally in a way that they hadn't done prior," he added.

USF is hosting screenings of a pair of documentaries about the Johns Committee produced by State University System members.

Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Johns Committee was produced by the Documentary Institute of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, while Florida’s Purge: The Johns Committee Witch Hunt was produced by the Burnett Honors College Advanced Documentary Filmmaking Workshop at the University of Central Florida.

A screening of the films and a discussion moderated by Schnur and USFSP Franklin Professor of Southern History, Ray Arsenault, is today at 7 p.m. in the Oval Theater at the Marshall Student Center on USF's Tampa campus.

The event is free and open to the public.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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