USF History 101 – The witch hunt comes to USF

In the early 1950s, U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy saw Communist agents everywhere in the government. The state had it’s own Red-baiter in Florida Senator Charley Johns, the head of the Florida Legislative Investigations Committee, commonly known — and feared — as the Johns Committee.

Johns made it his mission to rid the state of Communists, homosexuals and the NAACP. For many conservatives in the Deep South, the three groups were linked by their desire to turn American culture upside-down, thus making the nation (theoretically) more vulnerable to Soviet infiltration and invasion. In a state with a tradition of political persecution, religious invective and racial segregation, organized opposition to the Johns Committee was understandably sparse and sporadic.

The committee scrutinized public schools first, but quickly moved on to higher education in the early 1960s. As a brand-new urban university, USF threatened the old order. That order was reigned over by Florida’s “Pork Choppers,” rural legislators determined to curb the influence of the “Lamb Choppers,” legislators representing more progressive city folk.

This upstart university, by virtue of being located beside a major city, was an affront to the sensibilities of the pork choppers. Then USF president John Allen once said proudly, “The tradition of establishing colleges in small towns away from the evil influences of the city has been broken.” With no traditions, education at USF could be dangerously innovative. A brilliant faculty imbued with deep idealism could mean subversive teachings, such as evolution, atheism, racial equality, and a broader perspective on communism and the Cold War. Finally, USF’s integrated status set a troubling precedent for the rest of the state, which was committed to Jim Crow.

The Johns Committee began its investigation of USF in 1962, searching for Communists and homosexuals. All alleged wrongdoers were assumed to be guilty and many faced unemployment and disgrace. The committee singled out Thomas Wenner thought to be a homosexual who was “soft” on Communism because he assigned “pornographic” materials in class. A peeved Allen suspended Wenner and invited the committee to conduct its investigation on campus “in the open” rather than sniping from afar. Wenner later abandoned his liberal views and joined the witch hunt, slinging accusations at USF faculty.

Students writing for the Campus Edition (USF’s first newsppaer, published weekly inside the Tampa Times) sarcastically welcomed the committee on May 28. “What we admire most about these people is their vocabulary,” the editor chuckled. “Communist, homosexual, pornography; Communist, homosexual, pornography. There is rhythm, beat and emotional impact in that chant. It will serve as the perfect background music for any play they wish to direct on campus during the next few weeks. We do hope it won’t be The Crucible. That was a clear case of righteous townspeople vs. the witches, and by the end of the play we didn’t like the townspeople very well.” Students responded with a flurry of letters to the paper, which printed none of them for fear that they violated libel laws and would only make the situation worse.

Once in Tampa, the committee singled out faculty for allegedly picking up on male students, scheduling speeches by “known communist sympathizers,” teaching evolution as fact and assigning “obscene” books of “intellectual garbage” like the classic Catcher in the Rye.

The Johns Committee loved to compile reports where it could make allegations (usually based upon testimony from like-minded witnesses) without actually proving them. The testimony alone stretched to more than 2,500 pages in the report about USF. Many deans objected to the committee’s activities, and local editorials blasted the report as “a disgrace” and “a shameful document.”

USF suspended Sheldon N. Grebstein, assistant professor of English, after the committee denounced him for handing out “indecent” reprints of literary criticism aimed at Beat writers. His book on the Scopes “Monkey Trial” probably did not endear him to the God-fearing committee, either. Later, Allen reinstated Grebstein, who still received censure for “poor judgment” to mollify Johns. The dogged English professor took a job in New York in 1963 and said upon leaving, “The greatest boost that higher education could get in this state would be for the Johns Committee to be put out of business.” That same year, news leaked that 10 or 20 professors would resign, some for reasons of academic freedom.

John W. Caldwell, associate professor of theater arts, who was reinstated after being investigated by the Johns Committee, resigned, citing “extended and continuing harassment” by the legislators. He commended Allen’s behavior during the ordeal and wrote: “The brief history of this institution has been indelibly marred by this fruitless investigation. These police state methods have made me and my colleagues almost physically ill, and I cannot tell you the contempt I feel as a result. I am a native of this state … (and) I leave it sadly, but with the fond hope that the citizens of Florida will again make it possible for their universities to be governed in a dignified and intelligent manner, free of political interference.”

D.F. Fleming was never hired due to a warning from his former employer that he had “gone sour.” Already relocated to Tampa, but with no contract, Fleming was out of work and out of luck.

Allen was in an unenviable position, caught between an intolerant investigation and the idealistic university he created. Protecting USF was always his highest concern, sometimes at the expense of his own ideals. He canceled a lecture to be given by Jerome Davis because he once appeared before the commie-sniffing House Committee on Un-American Activities. The American Association of University Professors issued a resolution against the cancellation. But if Allen defied the Johns Committee, it could have meant USF wasting away when the legislature withheld funding.

A letter to the Campus Edition editor from a concerned student read, “The enthusiasm (for USF) was here right up until last spring. Since then it has received blow after blow (by the Johns Committee). Now Allen is in the position of choosing between alienating the BOC (State Board of Control) or the faculty. What we fear most is desertion by our best faculty. If they leave for attractive job offers in the North, USF will never recover from the broken morale they will leave behind. They must remember their enthusiasm of two years ago. They came looking for ‘something of value.’ It is still here. It will leave with them and the students they take with them.”

The student government that year passed a resolution supporting academic freedom.

Johns Committee attorney Mark Hawes shared the committee’s new report with the state Senate, calling USF immoral, anti-religious and a sanctuary for sexual deviants. In part, the impassioned two-hour tirade was meant to defend the committee’s activities and request continued funding.

Allen then made a calm 25-minute speech that refuted the committee’s report, saying it did not find a single Communist on campus. On the teaching of communism, Allen said, “We do not like communism and we do not like cancer. But to understand and control cancer we take the cells into a laboratory to study them and learn all we can about them. The minister who is talking about sin is not trying to sell it.” Allen summed up academic freedom as follows: “A college is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.” The senate gave Allen a standing ovation at the end of the speech. Soon after the hearing, a journalist denounced the committee as a dying breed. “They are afraid of ideas,” he wrote. “They are saying to the young people, ‘We don’t have faith in you. We need to hold you by the hand. We must protect your minds from the wicked professors.'”

Not everyone thought Johns was a dying breed. Some thought demagoguery could still win elections. Gubernatorial candidate and Jacksonville Mayor Haydon Burns announced he was “astounded at the number of pinks and Communists on the campuses of higher education in this state.” Burns pledged to “get rid of them” and he became Florida’s new governor.

The AAUP censured and criticized USF at every opportunity, with little appreciation for the sensitive job Allen performed. In response, Allen said USF was “in good company,” because other institutions to be censured by the AAUP included Auburn, the University of Illinois, and Texas Tech.

Some administrators couldn’t tolerate the situations they found themselves in. In 1967, a St. Petersburg Times editorial reflected on the recent resignation of the presidents of FSU and UF. “Outstanding teachers and scholars will not work — indeed, cannot work — where legislative committees intimidate faculties … where governors crudely interfere with academic decisions or where university budgets are slashed for political reasons.”

Allen walked the tightrope skillfully, without incurring permanent damage from either side of the political divide. USF was as lucky to have him as Florida was unlucky to have Charley Johns.