Harvey Milk Day: a Look at the Life and Legacy of the Gay Rights Icon Assassinated in 1978

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California history.
Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. It was his third bid for that office.The Harvey Milk Foundation

Saturday is Harvey Milk Day, a holiday that celebrates the life and accomplishments of the first openly gay elected official in California history. The gay rights activist was shot to death at San Francisco City Hall. Mayor George Moscone was also killed.

Most things about Harvey Milk were bigger than life — his fiery speeches, his penchant for making an entrance and his public exhortations to fellow gays and lesbians to come out of the closet during the 1970s, when "homosexual" was the accepted term for what is now the LGBTQ community and being openly gay was seen by many as being tantamount to treason.

So too was the violent end to Milk's life. He was assassinated in 1978 at San Francisco City Hall, where he served on the Board of Supervisors. Mayor George Moscone was also killed. It was a brazen attack in broad daylight by angry former colleague Dan White, whose "Twinkie defense" got him a short sentence for shooting to death two beloved Bay Area politicians.

Saturday is Harvey Milk Day, a celebration of his life and legacy, and an official California holiday. It is also his birthday. Had he lived, Milk would be 90.

"His message is still relevant. That's his legacy. He was so forward-looking that the messages he sent out to everyone are still relevant," Miriam Richter, education director and legal counsel to the Harvey Milk Foundation, told Inside Edition Digital.

"He was a visionary," she said.

Harvey Milk's Impact on the World of Books, Film and Stage

Milk's legendary life became the subject of literature and popular culture.

Randy Shilts, the late journalist and author of the best-selling "And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic," chronicled Milk in "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk." Sean Penn won an Oscar for portraying the politician in Gus Van Sant's 2008 feature film "Milk," which also won an Academy Award for best original screenplay.

A documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” won an Oscar in 1985. There was also an award-winning play by Emily Mann and an opera based on his life.

The Early Years of Harvey Milk

Harvey Bernard Milk was born in 1930 in Woodmere, a hamlet on New York's Long Island. His grandfather, Morris, emigrated from Lithuania and opened Milk's Dry Goods, which would become the largest department store on Long Island.

Morris Milk also helped open the area's first synagogue.

Harvey knew he was gay at a young age, but hid his love of opera and focused on sports, playing football and basketball at Bayshore High School, where his sense of humor and sharp wit made him popular with classmates. 

He attended what is now the State University of New York at Albany, majoring in math. Like his mother and father, Milk joined the Navy, signing up after graduating from college. He was forced to resign in 1955 after his superiors spotted him in a park popular with gay men, he later told friends and supporters.

Afterward, Milk moved to New York and worked as a teacher, a stock analyst and a production associate for Broadway musicals. Lured by the growing gay community in San Francisco's Castro District, Milk took up residence there in the early 1970s and blossomed into a local activist on gay rights and a champion of neighborhood concerns.

In 1973, he ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, spurred by what he thought was a unfair tax on small businesses. He ran a camera store at the time in the Castro.

It was the first of two failed runs for that office.

His campaign speeches were electrifying, and he knew when to insert a joke to lighten a mood and how to make his outspoken advocacy of coming out of the closet less frightening to members of the LGBTQ community struggling to be heard and seen.

His campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, wrote, "What set Harvey apart from you or me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us."

His legendary call was "Be visible. Be out," Richter said. "When people see you, it takes a tremendous amount of fear out of the unknown," she said. If someone knows their firefighter is gay or their mail carrier or the local police officer is gay, "that makes it OK," Richter said. 

One of Milk's more famous quotes highlighted that belief. "If every gay person were to come out only to his/her own family, friends, neighbors and fellow workers, within days the entire state would discover that we are not the stereotypes generally assumed," he said.

"He was a beacon," Richter said. Even to people in middle America. Milk often recalled a story about how he received a phone call one day while sitting at his kitchen table. A teenager was on the line from Altoona in central Pennsylvania. He was gay and he had heard of Milk via myriad media stories about the openly gay office seeker.

"He just wanted to say thank you," Richter said of the caller. The young man was also frightened and felt bullied by family members who were vehemently opposed to his sexual orientation. Milk gave him hope, Richter said.

"Gotta give them hope," was one of Milk's favorite quips. At the time, "kids just didn't feel like there was any hope. Harvey gave thousands and thousands and thousands of people hope," she said.

He would point to his own success at being openly gay and being accepted by the Castro District. "I'm out and I have a seat at the table," he told supporters. He was also fond of saying "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're on the menu."

Harvey Milk's Brief Term of Office

In 1977, on his third run, Milk won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first gay elected official in the history of California. He had built an unlikely coalition of supporters, from the disabled and minorities to the teamsters, from whom he managed to elicit a pledge to hire more gay drivers.

But he had paid a high price for his notoriety. Daily death threats were common, and Milk had taken to tape-recording versions of his will. "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door," he said in one.

Nonetheless, Milk came out of the gate running. He sponsored a civil rights bill that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. The only supervisor to vote against it was Dan White. Milk also got a "pooper scooper" law passed, mandating that pet owners pick up dog droppings on city streets. 

Milk's vehement opposition to Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that would have mandated the firing of gay teachers in the state's public schools, helped defeat the measure in the November 1978 election.

“Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets," he said in what would be become his most famous speech. "We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.”

The initiative lost by more than one million votes.

The Assassination of Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone

In November 1978, conservative Supervisor Dan White resigned his office, saying his annual public salary of $9,600 was not enough to support his family. Financial problems had left White depressed and anxious, his relatives would later say.

Days later, White asked Mayor Moscone to throw out his resignation and reinstate him to the board. After consulting with other supervisors, Moscone declined, sensing an opportunity to replace White with a more liberal voice that would shift the board's balance of power.

On Nov. 27, 1978, just minutes before Moscone was scheduled to announce White's replacement at a news conference, White crawled through a basement window at City Hall, thereby avoiding metal detectors at the building's entrance.

He strode to Moscone's office, where shouting was heard by witnesses, followed by gunshots. The mayor, at age 49, died where he fell, after being shot twice in the head, and once in the chest and shoulder. White then walked down a hallway, where he ran into Milk and asked him to step inside White's former office. Supervisor Dianne Feinstein, who would go on to become a powerful U.S. senator, heard gunshots and summoned police. 

She found Milk on the floor. He had been shot five times. He was 48.

A shaken Feinstein addressed reporters on the steps of City Hall. 

"Today San Francisco has experienced a double tragedy of immense proportions," she said. "As President of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to inform you that both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed, and the suspect is Supervisor Dan White."

White would later turn himself in as the city mourned and thousands turned out to honor the slain politicians. San Francisco had already been rocked just days before by the mass suicides of 900 people in at the Peoples Temple, a cult that had been based in the city for years, but had relocated to Guyana.

Those events constituted some of the darkest days in the history of San Francisco.

White was charged with two counts of murder, but jurors convicted him on lesser charges of voluntary manslaughter in 1979, after his lawyer presented a diminished capacity defense caused by White's consumption of junk food on the day of the killings. He was sentenced to just under eight years. He was released after five, with credit for time served and good behavior.

White's so-called "Twinkie defense" became part of the popular lexicon and the subject of much derision. Violence erupted after the verdicts in what came to be known as the White Night Riots. Police retaliated by raiding the Castro District and beating people in the street.

Months after his release in 1985, White killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in his ex-wife's garage, despondent over losing his family and what he had done. "This was a sick man," his lawyer told reporters.

Milk became a martyr and an icon in the gay rights movement. But many young Americans today have not heard of him, said Richter.

"Kids these days are lucky enough to have a much more accepting society and are much more comfortable being out and visible," she said. "They're not familiar with the history."

And that was Milk's vision in a nutshell — that being openly gay would someday raise nary an eyebrow.

In his last recording regarding his will, Milk said, "I cannot prevent anyone from getting angry, or mad, or frustrated. I can only hope that they'll turn that anger and frustration and madness into something positive, so that two, three, four, five hundred will step forward, so the gay doctors will come out, the gay lawyers, the gay judges, gay bankers, gay architects. I hope that every professional gay will say 'enough', come forward and tell everybody, wear a sign, let the world know. Maybe that will help."

His nephew, Stuart Milk, who was a teenager when Milk was assassinated and came out afterward, now runs the Harvey Milk Foundation. 

He "gets asked a lot, 'What would Harvey think of society today?''' Richter said. What would he think of today's more inclusive environment toward the LGBTQ community?

"Stuart's answer is always 'He did see this. He saw this coming.'"

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