TAMPA — Public places across the Tampa area bear the name of C.W. Bill Young, the congressman known for his work on behalf of service members and veterans.
But now, two years after the death of the Indian Rocks Beach Republican, a group of students wants to remove Young’s name from the building that houses the USF ROTC program over Young’s involvement in an anti-gay legislative committee during the Civil Rights era.
The Tampa Bay chapter of the New Students for a Democratic Society is circulating an online petition demanding University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft change the name of the C.W. Bill Young Hall, which opened in 2007 to house the Joint Military Leadership Center.
So far, the petition has received almost 400 signatures and helped the students secure a meeting Wednesday with USF Provost Ralph Wilcox. The club will hold a press conference in front of Bill Young Hall at 3 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the conversation.
A member of the Students for a Democratic Society recently learned that in Young’s early days as a state senator, he was a member of the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee, better known as the Johns Committee after Chairman Charley Johns.
Young served on the committee from 1962 to 1965, when the group worked to identify homosexual students and faculty to be removed from USF and other public universities. The committee also openly opposed racial integration during the Civil Rights era and investigated curriculum taught at USF for introducing evolution, controversial books and communist ideals to students.
An infamous report published by the committee in 1964 titled Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, also known as The Purple Pamphlet because of its color, called homosexuality a sin, a sickness and a crime.
“It’s not well known since the building has been around for so long, but when you find out stuff about your own school you want to do something about it,” said Sam Beutler, a 19-year-old sophomore at USF and a member of SDS. “I’m pretty disgusted by this guy’s rampant homophobia.”
The New SDS chapter at USF is part of a national New SDS, a self-described “radical multi-issue organization,” created a decade ago in the spirit of the student movement of the 1960s. There are about 30 members in the USF group, Beutler said.
The Marine Science Complex at USF St. Petersburg is also named after Young and the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir has provided drinking water to Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties since 2005. There is a C. W. Bill Young Armed Forces Reserve Center in Pinellas Park, and outside the area, the C.W. Bill Young Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infections Diseases in Bethesda, Md. opened in 2006.
His family and USF officials say the buildings are a fitting tribute to Young and his 43 years of service in Congress.
“It just saddens me that Bill can’t be here to defend himself, but anyone that knows Bill knows that this is not the issue to attack Bill Young on,” said Young’s widow, Beverly Young. “He loved the men and women of the U.S. armed services and the many, many gay members of our military who are American heroes. He loved them all, and they have every right to be who they want and love who they want.”
In the petition, which includes an open letter to Genshaft, the students cite a 1993 article by The St. Petersburg Times that said Young defended the Purple Pamphlet when it was published, saying, “Our report tried to show it in its true light – it’s a very repulsive subject.”
“For a university that serves innumerable LGBTQ students, is comprised of countless LGBTQ staff and faculty, this is not only inappropriate, it’s reprehensible,” the students’ letter to Genshaft says.
Yet Beverly Young said her husband never mentioned his time on the Johns committee and loved multiple friends and family members who are gay. He hired a gay Democrat, a retired Marine, for his executive office in Pinellas and the two became like brothers, she said. They worked together 15 years.
She said the students’ effort is misplaced.
“They’re young and have a right to be free thinkers, but the fact they’re questioning the ROTC building hurts me because if they researched Bill Young the would know he has always been the biggest supporter of our military in this country,” Beverly Young said. “Be it man or woman, Bill supported them 100 percent and was proud of every man and woman who had integrity, courage, love for this country, regardless of color or sexual orientation.”
Beutler said the club has heard from several faculty members who support removing Young’s name from the building. However, in a statement to the Tribune, USF officials said there are no plans to remove Young’s name at this time.
Young was known as an ardent supporter of veterans’ education and USF was his favorite cause, Beverly Young said. Since 2008, he helped guide more than $16.8 million in federal funding to USF.
“If not for his support for these initiatives – in addition to health care, biological defense, cancer clinical trials and Gulf of Mexico restoration following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – the Tampa Bay region, state of Florida and our nation would not be as strong as they are today,” the university said in its statement.
Jim Schnur, a historian in USF St. Petersburg Library’s Special Collections and a leading expert on the Johns Committee, said Young was a young, ambitious politician whenh he was appointed to the committee he was no mover and shaker then.
“He was more or less a bit player,” Schnur said. “He, like anyone trying to get into public office, wouldn’t have had a problem with the Purple Pamphlet because that was the popular stance. ... He was intolerant but not any less intolerant as any other law maker would have been at that time.”
USF was the first institution where faculty and administrators pushed back against the Johns Committee, under the direction of its first president, John Allen. The committee was eliminated in June 1965 and the following day, USF became the first Florida university to launch a branch campus — USF St. Petersburg.
“USF not only won the war, but won the battles too,” Schnur said.
Still, the Students for a Democratic Society say this is a battle they intend to win.
“We are not going to let this quietly drop,” Beutler said. “If they don’t agree to change the name, we’ll continue fighting.”
In addition to removing Young’s name from campus, members of the SDS are also asking the university to cut all U.S. military contracts because of its reticence to accept LGBT members. That idea has been met with pushback from students in the ROTC program, Beutler said.