Summer 2009 - Volume 12 Number 3
|Reviews||And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida’s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009
Active repression of political viewpoints in the classroom seems a little out of date. Wholesale purges of teachers are pretty much things of the past, and the targeting of educators with unpopular perspectives normally takes place only under the cover of darkness. Although colleges resist even token acceptance of notions of academic freedom, the general process of commodification of education, the marginalization of faculty and the corporate culture particular to postsecondary institutions do not promote lively scholarship, imaginative teaching and emancipatory educational projects; quite the opposite, they turn education and training into what David Noble has now famously called “digital diploma mills.” Despite all the chatter about “critical thinking,” “thinking outside the box” and so on, the fact remains that colleges are more determined than ever to replicate the ideology and social relations of late capitalism. As a result, politically motivated firing of teachers has become largely obsolete because it is no longer deemed necessary.
With this in mind, some may wonder what is to be gained by attending to a book that deals with more primitive times, and one that addresses not just college but public school teachers, and in the State of Florida at that. The quick answer is that it is important to be retain an awareness of the past, which hasas Santayana reminds usa nasty habit of repeating itself soon after it has been forgotten.
Karen L. Graves, therefore, does us all a service in her book about the Johns Committee and its doings in the decade between Brown vs. Board of Education and the United States’ Civil Rights Act of 1965. In that decade, the Florida legislature empowered a special committee (formally known as the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, and chaired by State Senator Charley Johns) to poke about in the schools of the Sunshine State.
I say “poke about” because the activities of the Committee were something of a dark secret, as were its many abuses of its authority and power. The origins of the Committee were to be found in the great US Supreme Court decision to overcome school segregation. Florida, of course, was unimpressed and sought to raise as many obstacles as possible to school integration. The initial target was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group that had already been deemed subversive and made the object of special scrutiny by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In turn, the Committee expanded its inquiries into alleged communist influence in the public schools and then into the somewhat narrower domain of homosexuality at the University of Florida at Gainesville. The assault on the NAACP was not especially successful, for the organization had the financial and political resources to challenge the Johns Committee in the courts. The two dozen faculty and staff members and the over fifty students at the University did not fare as well.
Despite the earnest efforts of the American Association of University Professors and the American Association of University Women, gays and lesbians were hunted down, harassed and frequently fired from their jobs at places such as the Florida State University at Tallahassee and the University of Southern Florida at Tampa.
Karen Graves takes us through the turmoil in meticulous detail. Her main interest is in the fate of the public school teachers, but she also provides pertinent information and evidence of the personal experiences of the teachers swept up in the investigation. All the usual tricks including evidentiary bias, intimidation and conviction based on nothing by the presumption of guilt are chillingly revealed.
Conviction of what? Well, at a time when sexual orientation was an indictable offence and eager politicians were quick to built their reputations as defenders of national security, then the answer is plain. Operating largely behind closed doors (except for carefully orchestrated public hearings), the Johns Committee presents the very model of a modern witch hunt. Whether the orchestrators were deeply deluded or merely ruthlessly ambitious is an interesting but ultimately tangential question. What matters is that issues of due process and natural justice were ignored, and questions of academic freedom were contemptuously dismissed.
Could such a thing happen here (wherever “here” is)? Could it happen now? The answer, of course, is “of course it could.” It is true that sexual orientation is at least temporarily unlikely to be the basis of such mischief. It is also true that all but the most draconian of unreconstructed cold warriors is apt to go sneaking around looking for communists … at least outside the mind-sets of American “Tea Party” followers. That, however, merely means that the threat-de-jour has changed, not the inclination to scapegoat minorities and the marginalized.
And, let us remember: the Texas School Book disaffection for the “theory” of evolution and its emerging antipathy to “ultraliberal” US President Thomas Jefferson should be considered an omen of pernicious possibilities. It was Jefferson, after all, who said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. That means “eternal” and that means “now.”
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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