‘State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties’ by Judith G. Poucher
Author: Philip Clark
July 20, 2014
I approached Judith G. Poucher’s State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties with a degree of skepticism. It wasn’t long ago that I reviewed Stacy Braukman’s masterful Communists and Perverts Under the Palms (2012), also about the Johns Committee, and I had my doubts that a second book in three years would reveal much more necessary information about the post-McCarthy witch-hunts that the committee launched in Florida. Fortunately, Poucher has found a different approach to the material, emphasizing the contributions of five individuals who, when confronted by the committee, fought back through lawsuits, cleverly combative testimony, and, in the case of gay individuals, refusing to name names.
Through this Profiles in Courage-style individualistic approach, Poucher provides a concise and readable history of the committee’s activities. Founded in 1957 and named after its guiding force, Florida state senator Charley Johns, the Johns Committee’s initial intent was to slow down or halt integration efforts following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. To this end, the group engaged in extensive harassment of the NAACP, attempting to force chapters to disband, often by alleging that they had illegally sponsored lawsuits from individuals seeking integration. When the NAACP and those testifying on its behalf proved formidable opponents, the Johns Committee justified its existence by redirecting its attention to alleged Communist influences, progressive professors, and especially gay and lesbian teachers.
Although the Johns Committee was continually renewed every two years by the Florida legislature until its rather spectacular demise in 1965, and it damaged or destroyed many gay and lesbian lives in Florida as a byproduct of its efforts, it had little success in achieving its larger goals. f Poucher can be said to have a thesis, it is that the strength of individuals, what she calls (after a quote from Andrew Jackson) “majorities of one,” is crucial to defending social causes in the face of state oppression.
This conclusion may seem a bit wan, especially when considered next to the strength of Braukman’s revelatory arguments about the Johns Committee’s foreshadowing the rise of the modern Moral Majority/Christian fundamentalist Right. But Poucher certainly supports her conclusion with five well-balanced stories of individual champions against Charley Johns and his investigators. Beginning with Virgil Hawkins, who battled everyone from the legislature to the Florida court system (where Florida Supreme Court justices turned their backs to the lawyer arguing for Hawkins) for admission to the University of Florida’s law school), Poucher presents a diverse cast of men and women battling for civil liberties. These include Hawkins, looking to integrate Florida’s universities; Ruth Perry, a white librarian active in the NAACP who fought off death threats from White Citizens Councils and helped prevent the Johns Committee from accessing NAACP membership rolls; and Margaret Fisher, a teacher and administrator at the University of South Florida whose intentionally meandering, obfuscating testimony resisted Johns Committee lawyers’ assault on academic freedom.
Poucher also tells the stories, perhaps of most interest to gays and lesbians, of G.G. Mock, a lesbian who, despite incarceration, refused all attempts to name other lesbians, including the schoolteacher she was dating, and Sig Diettrich, a married University of Florida professor who refused to name his male sexual partners—including the man who gave Diettrich up to investigators—despite humiliating private interrogation and the impending loss of his career. All five survived their encounters with the Johns Committee, going on to private and professional successes. All fives’ stories serve as odes to maintaining honor and idealism while facing the intensity of official oppression.
Since it is unlikely that many readers will attempt both Poucher and Braukman’s books (although they should), the question becomes: if choosing only one, should it be State of Defiance or Communists and Perverts under the Palms? Both do an admirable job of concisely telling the story of the Johns Committee. Both evaluate its overall effects, although Braukman goes into more detail. I think gay and lesbian readers will find Braukman’s book more rewarding, as she foregrounds the Johns Committee’s assault on gay and lesbian teachers, and spends much more time discussing “the Purple Report,” a Johns Committee publication intended to spur public outrage against homosexuals that was instead denounced as pornography and helped destroy the Johns Committee’s mandate. Readers who prefer biographical portraits or are looking for inspirational storytelling may prefer Poucher. If only all such revealing historical events received the attention of two worthy books.
State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties
by Judith G. Poucher
University Press of Florida
Hardcover, 9780813049939, 218 pp.