Harvey Milk: Messenger of Hope
Harvey Milk: Messenger of Hope
Harvey Bernard Milk (1930–78) was a visionary human rights leader, a groundbreaking political luminary, and a seminal figure of the LGBTQ rights movement. Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Woodmere, New York, Milk followed several career paths before focusing on social activism and politics. He moved to San Francisco in 1972 with his romantic partner Scott Smith (1948–95) and opened a camera shop in the Castro, a neighborhood that by that time served as a sanctuary for the city’s gay population. Milk announced his candidacy for the San Francisco City and County Board of Supervisors in 1973 on a platform advocating gay and lesbian rights, individual freedom, and economic reform. Although the grassroots campaign was defeated, Milk proudly stated, “Win or not, the fact that we’re willing to wage a hard, uphill fight for what we feel is right will provide help and courage to others.”
In 1975, Milk campaigned for supervisor again and lost. Dubbed “The Mayor of Castro Street,” Milk mobilized the community and registered thousands of voters. He partnered with the local Teamsters Union and co-organized a successful boycott of a discriminatory anti-union national beer producer—one of the first instances of a gay community realizing their collective power in an economic boycott. Undaunted by his previous defeats, Milk ran for supervisor a third time and won, making him the first openly gay elected official in California. Milk’s watershed 1977 victory made national and international headlines and served as a triumphant milestone for the LGBTQ community. Milk used his platform to encourage others to come out of the closet as a critical first step toward achieving their rights.
The late 1970s were turbulent years for the burgeoning LGBTQ rights movement with many cities across the United States considering repeals of anti-discrimination protections for lesbian and gay people. In March of 1978, Mayor George Moscone (1929–78) signed a landmark ordinance authored by Milk that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing in San Francisco. That same year, Supervisor Milk effectively led the fight against Proposition 6, a ballot initiative to prohibit openly gay men and women from working in California’s public schools. The initiative’s defeat at the polls in November was a validation of the political power of the LGBTQ community and its allies statewide.
Due to his high public profile as an openly gay elected official, Milk attracted a torrent of hate mail, including threats on his life. In a chilling forecast, Milk recorded a living will on November 18, 1978, proclaiming, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Nine days later, a disgruntled former supervisor, Dan White (1946–85), slipped through a basement window and assassinated Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk in their City Hall offices. That evening, more than 25,000 grieving San Franciscans congregated in the Castro before marching to City Hall in a candlelight vigil, sending a powerful and eloquent message that the struggle for gay rights would not end with Milk’s death. Six months later, when Dan White received a voluntary manslaughter sentence of seven years and eight months, the Bay Area community responded with a demonstration at City Hall that turned violent, with outraged protesters resisting containment and engaging the police in a series of pitched street battles. The “White Night Riots” served notice that the LGBTQ community would no longer suffer injustice in relative silence.
Today, Harvey Milk’s legacy is felt in the gains for LGBTQ rights made during the four decades since his assassination, including the 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marriage as a legal right. Milk’s nascent vision of increasing worldwide representation in local, statewide, and national political offices peaked with the Rainbow Wave in November of 2018, when a record number of openly gay, lesbian, and transgender candidates were elected to public office. As Milk once declared, “If you help elect more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward…because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.” He would also be the first to recognize that the fight for equality and human rights continues as long as one person is denied their full measure of freedom, that “there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We’ve given them hope.”
About the Exhibition
In November of 2018, SFO Museum organized a public call for material pertaining to the life and legacy of Supervisor Harvey Milk. This exhibition features those submissions as well as items from archival collections at the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) and the GLBT Historical Society. Much of the material is held in the Harvey Milk Archives–Scott Smith Collection, generously donated by Elva Smith to the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center (SFPL) in 1996 and to the GLBT Historical Society in 2002. Harvey Milk: Messenger of Hope will remain on view until late 2021. A permanent exhibition will be installed pre-security in Harvey Milk Terminal 1 in 2021.
Special thank you to photographer Daniel Nicoletta; Susan Goldstein, City Archivist at the San Francisco History Center (SFPL); Dee Dee Kramer, Program Manager at the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center (SFPL); Christina Moretta, Photo Curator at the San Francisco History Center (SFPL); Tim Wilson, Librarian and Processing Archivist at the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center (SFPL); and Ramon Silvestre, Exhibitions and Collections Chief Registrar at the GLBT Historical Society Archives and Research Center, for their generous assistance with this exhibition.
The Harvey Milk Foundation. “The Official Harvey Milk Biography.” milkfoundation.org
Aretha, David. No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Press, 2010.
Black, Dustin Lance. Milk: A Pictorial History. New York: Newmarket Press, 2009.
Black, Jason Edward, and Charles E. Morris III. An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013.
Faderman, Lillian. Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018.
Milk. Directed by Gus Van Sant; Focus Features, 2008.
The Times of Harvey Milk. Directed by Rob Epstein; New Yorker Films, 1984.
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