Civil rights pioneer slain 25 years ago this Thanksgiving
Just one day after the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy, the city of San Francisco kicked off a week-long memorial to Harvey Milk, the gay civil rights hero and city supervisor, who was shot to death along with Mayor George Moscone 25 years ago this week.
The anniversary falls on November 27, Thanksgiving Day.
Moscone and Milk were gunned down by Dan White, a former cop and firefighter who as a city supervisor clashed with progressives led by Moscone and Milk. Increasingly frustrated by his political isolation, White resigned his seat, only to return to City Hall several days later in an unsuccessful effort to convince Moscone to re-appoint him. When his pleas fell on deaf ears, White killed Moscone and then went to Milk’s office, where he also killed the gay supervisor at close range. White confessed to the killings several hours later.
The night of the assassinations a spontaneous crowd estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 gathered at San Francisco’s City Hall and held a candlelight procession down Market Street into the Castro, the famous gay ghetto. On Sunday, November 23, Gina Moscone, the widow of the slain mayor, and her family led a similar candlelight march, this time through the Castro and ending at the camera store that Milk owned from the time he arrived in San Francisco from New York in 1972.
The outpouring of people who gathered the night Milk and Moscone were killed was peaceful—a scene of candles stretching as far as the eye could see captured hauntingly by Rob Epstein in his film “The Times of Harvey Milk”—but not every crowd that gathered in the wake of the killings maintained its calm. On May 21, 1978, after a trial in which his defense lawyers had excluded pro-gay jurors and argued the now-infamous “Twinkie defense” that junk food had contributed to his depression, White was convicted of “involuntary man-slaughter,” for which he served five years in prison.
The verdict enraged the gay and lesbian community, and riots broke out that evening in front of City Hall, during which police cars were torched and more than 150 people required hospitalization. Scenes of the angry confrontation that took place amidst blazing squad cars shocked the nation.
Twenty months after White was released from prison in early 1984, he asphyxiated himself in his home in Los Angeles.
The tragedy’s denouement came just over seven years after Milk finally arrived on the San Francisco political scene after two earlier unsuccessful tries for office. He was drawn to the city in the early 70s by its lingering hippie culture, after growing up in a prosperous retailing family on Long Island, serving in the Korean War, and working briefly as an investment banker. As a small business owner on Castro Street and a gay political activist, Milk built up tremendous neighborhood credibility despite his defeats at the polls. A reform in city election law to elect some of the supervisors to represent specific districts rather than the city at large gave Milk the opening he needed and by January 1978 he had a seat on the Board of Supervisors.
Accounts of his year in office invariably note that he was responsible for passing a gay civil rights law and a pooper-scooper ordinance. He also used his prestige to lead a successful statewide campaign to defeat Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative that would have outlawed gay and lesbian teachers in the public schools. When Briggs went down on Election Day, November 7, less than three weeks before Milk’s death, Walter Cronkite famously reported that California had “rejected the homosexual proposition.”
Epstein, who began his work on “The Times of Harvey Milk,” documenting the Proposition 6 fight, effectively used interviews to demonstrate the pivotal role that Milk played in reaching out to other communities in San Francisco, particularly the large, but then politically underrepresented Asian American community and the traditionally feisty labor movement. That outreach was critical in allowing Moscone and Milk to build one of the most progressive governing coalitions urban America has ever seen.
In the years since Milk’s death, he has been memorialized throughout the queer world and much has been written about his life and influence, which has served as inspiration to untold numbers of gay, lesbian, and transgendered youth and adults. The best records of his work and achievements remain Epstein’s 1983 film (available for purchase at tellingpictures.com/ sales/retail.html) and the late journalist Randy Shilts’ 1982 biography “The Mayor of Castro Street.”
On Thanksgiving Day, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus will gather on the steps of San Francisco City Hall at 1 p.m. in a memorial concert.