Harvey Milk born 22 May 1930 (d. 1978)
Harvey Bernard Milk an American politician and gay rights activist, was the first openly gay city supervisor of San Francisco, California. He and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in 1978. His assassin, Dan White, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Outrage over the verdict led to the White Night Riots in San Francisco by enraged citizens. Milk is seen by some to be a martyr to the LGBT community.
MIlk's grandfather, Morris Milk was the owner and namesake of Milk's Department Store in Woodmere, New York; 'Glimpy' was Harvey Milk's nickname because as a child and adolescent, he was considered odd-looking because of his large ears, nose, and feet. He was born in Woodmere. He graduated from Bay Shore High School, Bay Shore, NY in 1947, graduated from University at Albany in 1951 and joined the United States Navy, serving on active duty in the Korean war; he was honorably discharged.
Following his service in the Navy, Milk lived for a time in Dallas, Texas. Eventually he relocated to New York City and took a job on Wall Street. He also became involved with theatre, serving as Assistant Director alongside Tom O'Horgan for a number of plays including Lenny and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
In 1972, Milk moved to San Francisco. He settled with his partner Scott Smith and opened a camera store, Castro Camera, in the Castro gay village. He emerged as a community leader, founding the Castro Valley Association of local merchants, and represented the neighbourhood businesses in dealing with the city government.
Milk ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unsuccessfully twice, in 1973 and 1975. He emerged as a figurehead for San Francisco's large gay community, and was known as the 'Mayor of Castro Street', a title which he himself coined. With each campaign, he garnered a larger number of supporters.
After San Francisco switched from at-large to district elections, Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors on his third attempt in 1977, the first openly gay elected official of any large city in the United States, and only the third openly gay elected official in all of the US, the first man. Milk represented District 5, which included the Castro.
In his eleven months as a Supervisor, he sponsored a gay rights bill for the City as well as – famously – a pooper-scooper ordinance. He was also instrumental in defeating Proposition 6, The Briggs Initiative, backed by State Senator Briggs, which would have allowed openly gay men and lesbians who were teachers to be fired based on their sexuality. In November 1978, Proposition 6 was soundly voted down by Californians.
Milk was also successful in reaching out and making alliances among the city's ethnic populations and among labour union leaders but not among the rank and file members.
On September 22, 1975 former marine Oliver Sipple saved the life of President Gerald Ford for which he was highly praised by law enforcement in the media as well as in a personal letter from the President. Milk outed Sipple, despite Sipple's insistence to reporters that his sexuality was to be kept confidential, proclaiming Sipple a 'gay hero', and stating (this) 'will help break the stereotype of homosexuals'. This action had a disastrous effect on the life of Sipple himself.
Late in 1978, Supervisor Dan White, an acrimonious political opponent of Milk's, resigned from the Board of Supervisors. His resignation meant that Moscone would choose White's successor, and thus could tip the Board's balance of power in Moscone's favour. Recognising this, those who supported a more conservative agenda, including board ally Dianne Feinstein, talked White into changing his mind. White requested that Moscone re-appoint him to his former seat. Moscone originally indicated a willingness to do so, but more liberal city leaders, including Milk, lobbied him against the idea, and Moscone ultimately decided not to re-appoint White.
On November 27, 1978, White went to San Francisco City Hall to meet with Moscone and make a final plea for re-appointment. When Moscone refused to yield, White shot Moscone to death, then went to Milk's office and also shot Milk to death. White later turned himself in at the police station where he was formerly an officer. Even though he had carried a gun, 10 extra rounds, and crawled through a window to avoid metal detectors, White denied premeditation. Thousands attended a spontaneous candlelight memorial vigil the night of Milk's funeral. Milk had foreseen his risk of assassination and had recorded several audio tapes to be played in that event. One of the tapes included his now-famous quote, 'If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.'
Dan White's trial, which began four months after the killings, was one of the most closely watched trials in California at that time. The prosecution claimed that White's motive was revenge. But White's attorney, Douglas Schmidt, claimed that White was a victim of pressure and had been depressed, a state exacerbated by his consuming a large quantity of junk food before the murders; this became known as the 'Twinkie defence'. Schmidt also told the jury and the press that White carried all that ammunition on him not so much out of hatred but out of impulse from his experience as an ex-police officer.
Finally, the jury heard what the prosecution hoped it would be its most damaging piece of evidence — Dan White's tape-recorded confession which was taped the day after the murders. What was notable about this confession was that the police didn't seem to ask White any questions about the crime and just let him talk. Instead, White tearfully talked of how Moscone and Milk refused to give him his supervisor's job back.
White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter on the grounds of diminished capacity and sentenced to seven years and eight months, a sentence widely denounced as lenient and motivated by homophobia. During jury selection, defence attorneys had excluded candidates they deemed 'pro-gay'.
After the sentence, the gay community erupted into what became known as the White Night Riots. As soon as the sentence was announced, word ran through the gay community and groups of people began walking quickly to the Civic Center and by 8pm, there was a sizeable mob formed. According to the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, the enraged crowd started by screaming at police officers calling for revenge and death. Then, riots began to break out with the mob setting ablaze a number of police vehicles, disrupting traffic, smashing windows of cars and stores, buses had their overhead wires ripped down, and physical violence resulted against the outnumbered police officers.
Many rioters were arrested but the Chief of Police, Charles Gain, was blamed for being too weak in his response and holding back his officers when he should have been more proactive and defended lives and property. He defended himself by pointing out that no one was dead and only a few had minor injuries. More than 160 people were hospitalised because of the rioting.
Dan White served a little more than five years for the double murder of Moscone and Milk. On October 22, 1985, a year and a half after his release from prison, White was found dead in a running car in his ex-wife's garage. He was 39 years old. His defense attorney told reporters that he had been despondent over the loss of his family, and the situation he had caused, adding 'This was a sick man.'
Harvey Milk is widely regarded as a martyr for the gay community and the gay rights movement. Many gay and lesbian community institutions are named for Milk, including the Harvey Milk Institute and the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgendered Democratic Club in San Francisco, as well as a number of alternative schools in the United States, including Harvey Milk High School in New York City. Oakes College at the University of California, Santa Cruz has an on-campus apartment building named Harvey Milk.
Harvey Milk has been the subject of several documentaries, films, tribute songs and plays. A major feature film based on the life and death of Harvey Milk was in the offing for several years and finally appeared in late-2008, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn as Milk, who was Oscar-nominated for the role.
Pioneering gay journalist Randy Shilts wrote a major investigative biography entitled The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.
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