U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy ruined the lives and careers of innocent people in the 1950s, fueled by Cold War-era paranoia about the possible communist infiltration of America.
The Florida legislature had its own version of McCarthyism called the Legislative Investigation Committee, popularly known as the Johns Committee.
Organized in 1956 by state senator and former Florida governor Charley Johns, the Johns Committee investigated what it labeled “subversive activities” in state colleges, civil rights groups, and suspected communist organizations.
The Johns Committee tried but failed to link communism to the NAACP.
By 1961, the primary focus of the Johns Committee was to remove homosexual teachers and students from Florida universities.
Students and teachers were rousted from their dorm rooms and offices, dragged to dark basements and interrogated for more than 15 hours with no bathroom breaks, food, or drink, as they were grilled about their suspected homosexuality. Others were questioned about the possible homosexual activities of friends and neighbors.
“The Committee” is an award winning half hour documentary produced by students in the Burnett Honors College at the University of Central Florida. The film explores the outrageous activities of the Johns Committee.
The documentary was a cooperative effort, led by Dr. Robert Cassanello and Dr. Lisa Mills. “It’s called an interdisciplinary seminar,” says student filmmaker Monica Monticello. “It was in conjunction with the UCF film department as well as the UCF history department, and students from all majors from within the honors college were welcome to join the class and help in the production.”
Honors students from the UCF film program helped to give the project a professional look, and students from the history department made sure that the content was accurate. A diverse group of students from a variety of other disciplines participated in the making of the film. “We had students that were from accounting majors to digital media and art majors, to more traditional film and TV production. Some were journalism students,” says student filmmaker Logan Kriete. “There were a lot of different majors in the class.”
The documentary covers what is ancient history to the student filmmakers who created it. Most of their parents weren’t even born when the Johns Committee was active. Interviewing people who lived through the abuses of power inflicted upon them by the Johns Committee made this history “real” for these students.
“Just hearing their stories made it a completely different experience,” says Monticello. “It’s history, but it’s really not that long ago. These people were there and it happened to them, and now they were in front of us, talking about it.”
“It took the idea of what we were researching from just words on paper and what happened as ‘history’ to someone’s actual life, and what happened to them and what they experienced and went through directly,” says Kriete.
“The Committee” has earned awards including “best documentary” at the 2014 Love Your Shorts Film Festival and the 2014 Durban Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and was an “official selection” at the Gasparilla International, Fort Lauderdale International, Out Twin Cities, and Florida Film Festivals.
Feelings about homosexuality are largely generational, with comfort levels very high among younger populations. The student filmmakers of “The Committee” are aware that gay rights remain a hotly debated issue today.
“I think one of the scariest things about this documentary, aside from the fact that it’s only 50 years ago, is that we have this feeling that this could happen again,” says student filmmaker Amy Simpson. “It’s what happens when one small group of elite just become obsessed with power and are corrupted by their power, and it’s what the majority can do to any minority group.”
“History does repeat itself,” says Monticello. “When there’s this feeling of fear, and people are afraid of outside groups, that’s when this kind of thing happens. You can see this happening in our nation right now, and that’s what makes it very scary.”
A screening of “The Committee” and a discussion with the film’s directors will be held Wednesday, October 15, on the University of Central Florida Cocoa Campus at Eastern Florida State College, Building 3, Room 103, 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers,” broadcast locally on 90.7 WMFE Thursday evenings at 6:30 and Sunday afternoons at 4:00, and on 89.5 WFIT Sunday mornings at 7:00. The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.