By Rob Burgess
— Editor’s Note: November is the 35th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre (Nov. 18), the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22) and the 35th anniversary of the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (today). This is the third in a series of three columns exploring each.
“This is Harvey Milk speaking on Friday, Nov. 18, ,” began the recording. “This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination. … I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for — a gay activist — becomes the target or potential target for a person who is insecure, terrified, afraid or very disturbed themselves.”
It only took nine more days for Milk’s prophetic audio to take effect. Thirty-five years ago today, fellow supervisor, Dan White, shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and then Milk in San Francisco City Hall.
As it turned out, White’s psychological profile fit Milk’s premonition of his killer perfectly. White had quit his Board of Supervisors seat Nov. 10, 1978, but then reversed his decision four days later. He pumped four bullets into Moscone and five into Milk due to their opposition to his reinstatement. At trial, Dr. Martin Blinder was called by White’s defense to attest to his depression at the time of the murders.
Blinder used White’s increased intake of sugary foodstuffs — including Coke products and Twinkies — as mental illness symptoms; thus, forever coining the term, “the Twinkie defense.” On May 21, 1979 — the day before the late Milk’s 49th birthday — White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder and sentenced to seven years; anger over which sparked the White Night Riots.
On his fourth try, Milk became the first openly gay man to assume public office in the country’s history Jan. 8, 1978. Besides being a historical figure, Milk was also a person, and an imperfect one at that. He engaged in romantic relationships with people like 16-year-old John Galen McKinley.
“It would be boyish-looking men in their late teens and early twenties that Milk would be attracted to for the rest of his life,” wrote Milk biographer Randy Shilts in his book, “The Mayor of Castro Street.” However, like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi and every other nonviolent revolutionary in history, Milk is celebrated because of the social movement he represented, not his personal life.
“I stood for more than just a candidate,” Milk said on that fateful audio tape. “I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement. … I’ve considered the movement the candidate.”
MLK was alleged to have been an adulterer. “Many movement activists were aware of [King’s] various sexual involvements with a number of different women,” wrote David J. Garrow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Bearing the Cross.” Ghandi was no saint. Among other things, his writings reveal him to be more than a little racist against blacks. Despite their private shortcomings, King led the fight to overturn Jim Crow, and Ghandi is rightfully known as the Father of India.
Similarly, Milk was a flawed human being occupying a significant role. He didn’t elect himself. His name will ring throughout history because of those who put him in office. It was up to them all along. Milk knew every LGBT American living honestly was the lone path to equality.
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door,” said Milk into his recorder that November day. “I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anyone could imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights.”
The legacy of Milk’s short political career far outlasted the 323 days he was actually in office because of those he inspired. Milk ended his last recorded testament with what might as well have been his statement of purpose: “You gotta give them hope.”
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.