By Phillip Milano
The more he read, the angrier he got. The more dismayed.
“I couldn’t believe something of this nature could happen to so many people,” said Julian E. Farris, a Jacksonville University alumnus and author of the new novel “The Sin Warriors.”
The book personalizes the effects of Florida’s infamous Johns Committee of the ’50s and ‘60s, a McCarthy-era panel that purged more than 300 suspected gay students, faculty and administrators from Florida’s public colleges and universities.
Farris, who graduated from JU in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in English and was an editor of the Navigator, went on to become a college instructor and administrator before becoming a full-time novelist. Though he was shielded from the blackmail, intimidation and coercion of the committee because he attended a private college, he knew others affected.
“One of my former classmates had gone on to the University of Florida on a scholarship, was an outstanding student and wanted to study veterinary medicine,” he said. “In 1958 he took his life with no warning. We were shocked. In the back of my mind I’d heard rumors about what was going on, but it was hush-hush.”
The committee – officially the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee – was led by segregationist state Sen. Charley Eugene Johns, and its actions became more known via public records requests in the 1990s.
Farris vowed to search the newly opened documents to discover what happened to his friend, and though he never found a confirmed link, he came across “the most outrageous actions” in which students were dragged from classes based on hearsay, professors escorted away, people interrogated and intimidated, educations and careers ruined, lives lost.
That resulted in “The Sin Warriors,” which uses a narrative whose main characters put a human face on a story of “love, resilience and redemption.” It is being published by Lethe Press.
The book is getting solid reviews on Amazon.com, and Farris was featured recently in The Florida Times-Union. He says he’s gotten personal feedback from students who got caught in the purge.
One of the most compelling responses to his research was from a California man, now 80, who was “deeply scarred” by what happened to him. Though he didn’t buckle under the interrogation and held his ground, it had a major impact, and thankfully he had supportive parents and he was able to turn his life around, Farris said.
“A lot of people have posted to the web, who don’t know me but who heard about this purge, or were there and say they appreciate someone finally putting a face on it,” Farris said. “As they say, fiction is the lie that gives you another insight into the truth.”