The history of Florida’s anti-gay Johns Committee

Elizabeth Kramer Danya Zituni
Elizabeth Kramer (l) and Danya Zituni from Tampa Bay SDS. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News.

Many people agree that the legacy of the Johns Committee is a dark stain on Florida’s history; it was a Cold War-era group that cracked down on gay and lesbian state employees including professors at universities. It’s been in the news lately because some students at USF want the name of one member of the Johns Committee taken off the school’s ROTC Building – it’s a story we broke on WMNF News MidPoint a couple of months ago. To find out more about the Johns Committee I sat down with an expert: Jim Schnur is a special collections librarian at USF St. Petersburg. He did a Master’s thesis on the Johns Committee. Watch the video of that interview here:

Because of that anti-gay history, a group of University of South Florida students is gathering signatures to change the name of a building on campus that’s named the late member of Congress C. W. “Bill” Young, who was a member of the Johns Committee.

But the USF administration is rejecting the students’ demands to rename the ROTC building on campus. Here’s a story I produced for Florida Public Radio’s Capitol Report:

Bill Young was a long-time Republican Congress member from Pinellas County who died in 2013. In the first half of the 1960s, when he was a Florida State Senator, Young served on the Johns Committee. Since the previous decade that group targeted leftists as well as gay and lesbian students, faculty and state employees. Current USF student Danya Zituni calls that unacceptable.

“We’re asking of the university to change the name of the C.W. “Bill” Young [ROTC] building to one that is not associated with a legacy of homophobia.”

Zituni is a member of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society or SDS, a group best known for radical and leftist politics in the 1960s. The Johns Committee has been compared to the McCarthy hearings in Washington, D.C., which went after suspected communists and leftists. But here in Florida, Zituni says gays and lesbians were a primary target.

“We can’t ignore that C.W. “Bill” Young ruined many lives of professors and students in the Florida university system. So the continued veneration of the [former state] senator through the building’s namesake can only be seen as support for both the Red [Scare] and Lavender Scare and therefore endorsing bigotry and state repression. So we’re concerned with the credibility USF would lose should the administration refuse to comply with our demands.”

But the administration remains firm that Young’s name will stay on the building. SDS member Ronnie Juarez says students met in early October with USF’s provost and vice provost.

“What they told us was, basically, he [Young] has a very long legacy and they think that the Johns Committee was not a big part of it. Despite him being very supportive of the Johns Committee and their persecution and harassment of LGBTI staff members and faculty and students at Florida universities. He played a very large role and was supportive throughout it and has on multiple occasions spoken out against LGBT members.”

What was Bill Young’s role on the Johns Committee and the Lavender Scare? Jim Schnur is a special collections librarian at USF St. Petersburg. He did a Master’s thesis on the Johns Committee.

“His role on the Johns Committee during that period was relatively small. He was not a leader in any way. He was in the minority party. He was a member of the Republican Party at a time when the conservative Democratic wing ran the state. So Bill Young was involved on the Johns Committee. He was involved at a time when the Purple Pamphlet was produced. But I would say that his involvement did not rise to the level of him having any true overt leadership in terms of the committee’s activities. He was a lawmaker who was a participant on the committee but not to the point where he was orchestrating or leading any conversations.”

Even though Schnur downplays Bill Young’s role on the Johns Committee, he says there’s no doubt the work of the committee caused terror and ruined lives. And not only by the people it targeted.

“But the intangible is also important. How many people who lived in Florida got the hell out of here? How many people who would have went to USF or other schools in Florida – either outsiders wanting to work here as faculty or students wanting to come here – chose not to come to the state because of this committee? … We’ll never know how many people chose – how many great high school graduates in Florida in ’61 or ’62 wanted to become Gators or Seminoles and went out of state or went to the University of Miami just to get away from it?”

Another student from SDS, Elizabeth Kramer, is a transgender woman and says that a campus as diverse as USF shouldn’t honor someone involved in the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation.

“USF is obviously – and I mean, you’re going to find this anywhere, whether or not it’s sort of out in the open is neither here nor there – but there are a great variety of students ranging all across the sexual and gender spectrums. Especially at USF where we have a whole office dedicated to the health and life of LGBTQI+ organizations on campus as well as student organizations like PRIDE and the Trans Student Union. There’s obviously a great variety there of those students and this building is just a continuation of the sort of oppression that we face every day.”

Kramer says there’s support on campus for taking Bill Young’s name off the ROTC building.

“Plus, just in our regular tabling around campus, every time we would mention this – because we have been working up to this point – all the students would respond with, ‘What?!’ I think it’s a pretty common reaction to be disgusted with that sort of thing.”

As the long-time chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Young is credited with helping to direct millions of federal dollars to USF.

Listen to the full show here:

Two films related to the Red Scare:

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