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social sciences

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Milk, Harvey (1930-1978)  
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Milk first ran for the Board of Supervisors in 1973, finishing well out of the race in tenth place, with approximately 17,000 votes. He finished seventh in a race with six vacant seats in 1975, when he received more than 52,000 votes. After an unsuccessful bid for the California State Assembly, Milk finally won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1977.

A critical factor in his victory was a shift, which he helped orchestrate, from citywide to district elections, which allowed Milk to capitalize on his immense visibility and popularity in the heavily gay Castro neighborhood and its environs.

Sponsor Message.

When Harvey Milk was inaugurated on January 9, 1978, it represented an important symbolic, as well as practical, accomplishment for the gay movement. That day, he and tens of thousands of his supporters marched down Market Street, San Francisco's main commercial thoroughfare, from the Castro to City Hall.

As a member of the Board of Supervisors, Milk authored an important anti-discrimination ordinance. He also used his position to campaign against and help defeat Proposition 6, the so-called Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools.

Success and Tragedy

Milk's tenure in office was tragically short-lived. On November 27, 1978, after serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for only 11 months, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, a disgruntled former Supervisor who had resigned in opposition to the recent passage of Milk's only significant piece of legislation, the landmark gay rights ordinance.

White crawled in through a basement window at City Hall to avoid the metal detectors; he walked into the Mayor's office and shot Moscone at point-blank range; then he reloaded his gun and walked down the corridor to kill Milk.

Milk's fate at the hands of an assassin was not entirely unexpected, given the violence and that have characterized American politics. Milk himself was haunted by the possibility of assassination. He tape recorded several versions of his political will, which he labeled "to be read in the event of my assassination." One of the tapes included the following statement: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

White, who had been a police officer before entering politics, was convicted not of premeditated murder, as had been widely expected, but of the lesser crime of manslaughter, the result of what is now referred to as the "twinkie defense." White's attorney argued that the defendant could not be held accountable for his actions due to the amount of junk food he had eaten on the day of the crimes.

When White was sentenced on May 21, 1979 to less than eight years in prison, enraged citizens, sensing a conspiracy, swarmed City Hall in what came to be known as the White Night Riots. San Francisco suffered more than $1 million in damages to city property, including rows of police cars set on fire by angry protesters. Later that night, the police staged a retaliatory raid on the Castro, where they vandalized gay businesses and beat passers-by on the street. (White was paroled after serving six years in prison and committed suicide shortly thereafter.)

The Legacy of Harvey Milk

In the years since his untimely death, Harvey Milk--known to his friends as a secular, lusty, hard-drinking, party animal (though he apparently quit drinking and avoided the bathhouses when he embarked on his political career)--has been transformed into an almost saintly martyr for the gay liberation struggle. As gay writer Andrew Epstein has noted, this transformation has occurred with good reason; Harvey Milk represents "our Kennedy, our King, our Malcolm X. Our bullet."

In the years since his life was brutally cut short, the presence of Harvey Milk has continued to be felt. In the year following his death, 100,000 people marched on the nation's capitol in support of gay and lesbian civil rights, chanting "Harvey Milk Lives." His successor on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harry Britt, an openly gay man running as Milk's political heir, was the only incumbent to win in the city election subsequent to the assassinations.

There is a Harvey Milk High School for at-risk glbtq students in New York, as well as the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy elementary school in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, where both the MUNI public transit station and the branch library have been named in his honor. An annual candlelight march down Market Street commemorates the date of Milk's assassination.

Milk's life and legacy have been the subject of a specially-commissioned opera, as well as numerous books and films, including Randy Shilts's The Mayor of Castro Street (1982) and Rob Epstein and Richard Schmeichen's Academy Award-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984).

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