Harvey Milk was known as the “Mayor of Castro Street” during his political career. Born in 1930, he briefly worked in politics in the 1960s before moving to San Francisco. Milk’s full-time political career came in the 1970s, where he became the first openly gay politician in San Francisco.
The life of Harvey Milk ended shortly after he took office, but his legacy will last forever. Since his assassination, several films have tried to tell the story of Harvey Milk, but most are riddled with inaccuracies. This is the true story of the “Mayor of Castro Street.” Keep reading to learn how Harvey Milk predicted his own death!
Harvey Milk Played Football And Sang Opera As A Teenager
Harvey Milk grew up in New York and played football and sang opera in high school. Raised in a middle-class Jewish household by Minerva and William, he attended Bay Shore High School. Reportedly well-liked, if his family and classmates knew the secret he was hiding, he would have been ostracized.
Milk knew from a young age he was gay. He was open to himself but hid the truth from those around him. A fan of opera, Milk played football and basketball to appear more masculine to his classmates.
He Joined The Navy After College
Harvey Milk enlisted in the Navy after graduating with a mathematics degree from New York State College for Teachers. The move saw him follow in the footsteps of his Navy veteran parents. He worked as a diving instructor aboard the U.S.S. Kittiwake until his discharge in 1955.
Before his discharge, Milk transferred to San Diego where he reached the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. His stay in San Diego was short. After leaving the Navy, he moved to Long Island and began a brief career as a teacher at George W. Hewlett High School. As you’re about to learn, Milk left teaching when he found his true calling; finance.
Finance Was His Calling Before Politics
By the early- ’60s, Harvey Milk had settled into a cozy financial job with Bache and Company. He was promoted continuously despite higher ups reported dislike of him. Milk wasn’t humble and showed off his successful lifestyle. He was too good at his job to be fired though.
Milk may have been good at finance, but he didn’t enjoy it. In 1964 he made his first splash into politics, joining the presidential campaign of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson and Milk made his way to California.
1973 Was The First Year Harvey Milk Ran For Office
One year after moving to San Francisco Harvey Milk ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He was inspired to run after feeling small businesses were being taxed unfairly. Milk reached out to the cities gay electorate but was rejected for his inexperience and New York Demeanor.
Harvey Milk ended the election with 17,000 votes, finishing tenth out of 32 candidates. His surprising early career popularity motivated him to run for the same position in 1975. For the next two years, he built up his local and political relationships. Up next, the story of how Milk got his famous nickname, the “Mayor of Castro Street!”
Between Election Cycles, Milk Becomes Known As The “Mayor Of Castro Street”
After failing in his bid for the Board of Supervisors in 1973, Harvey Milk was given the nickname the “Mayor of Castro Street.” He earned the moniker for strides he made to help the gay community he lived in. He launched the Castro Street Fair in 1974 and co-founded the Castro Village Association.
The association worked to unite gay business owners, The same year, Milk allied himself with the Teamsters Union, supporting their boycott of Coors. The union promised to hire more gay drivers thanks to his support. At the same time, Milk began calling himself the “Mayor of Castro Street.”
The “Mayor” Lands A Job In City Hall
In 1975, Harvey Milk was welcomed into Mayor George Moscone’s administration on the Board of Permit Appeals. The appointment came after another failed election attempt for the Board of Supervisors. The job, like so many others, didn’t last long.
Milk was forced to resign from his appointment after announcing his intentions to run for California State Assembly. Moscone preferred Art Agnos for the position and backed him instead of Milk. The campaign was an uphill battle for the Milk, who used his position as an underdog to drive his campaign. When the votes came in, he lost by a thin margin.
Harvey Milk Becomes The First Openly Gay Official Elected In The United States
Losing his bid for State Assembly only pushed Harvey Milk to become the first openly gay official in the United States. Milk founded the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club to help force a reorganization of electoral map for the Board of Supervisors.
Milk ran for the Board of Supervisors again in 1977. He promised to reform the tax code and establish free public transportation. Harvey Milk was elected in a historic year for the city of San Francisco. Up next, Milk knew the world was against him and even predicted his own death!
Harvey Milk Predicted His Assassination
During his political campaign, Harvey Milk received constant death threats and ultimately predicted his assassination. Fearing for his life, Milk began recording his thoughts, including who should succeed him when he died.
In his most stunning recording, Milk says, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Less than a year into his first term, Dan White shot and killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone. When tried in court, White was given a reduced sentence after his lawyer argued he was high on Twinkies. That story is up next!
The Twinkie Defense Saved Dan White From A Life Behind Bars
Dan White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and received a seven-year prison sentence after his lawyer successfully used the “Twinkie defense.” Doug Schmidt, White’s attorney, claimed his client was depressed after losing his job and binged on Twinkies.
Depressed and high on Twinkies, White supposedly committed the murder. The jury bought Schmidt’s sugary take and reduced his charge from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter. Less than two years after being released from prison, White’s marriage fell apart, and he committed suicide.
The Castro Rioted After White’s Conviction
After Dan White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder, the gay citizens of San Francisco stormed City Hall. The demonstration began with “Avenge Harvey Milk” chants and quickly escalated to the destruction of property. In total, damages caused cost more than one million dollars.
Police were seen with Dan White wearing “Free Dan White” shirts pre-trial. After events settled down, an undersheriff said, “The more I observed what went on at the jail, the more I began to stop seeing what Dan White did as the act of an individual and began to see it as a political act in a political movement.”
Harvey Milk Helped Pass A Major Discrimination Ban
Harvey Milk pushed for a significant discrimination ban his only year in office. The measure assured equal rights for employment or housing regardless of someone’s sexual preferences. Only one person voted against the measure; Dan White. The measure became law in March 1978.
Later that same year, California Senator John Briggs proposed a ban on gay teachers. Milk spent the Summer fighting against the bill, working to gain enough support to defeat it on the ballot. When votes were counted, the proposition lost by one million votes.
He Worked On Hair While Still In New York
Harvey Milk let himself indulge in his love for music after meeting Tom O’Horgan in New York. Milk and O’Horgan became lovers and worked on Hair together. Working in finance during the day, Milk became political at night, joining Vietnam War protests with his new boyfriend.
The pair was offered a job touring with Jesus Christ Superstar after the success of Hair. During a stop in San Francisco, their relationship soured, and they broke up. Milk decided to stay in San Francisco and got a full-time job in finance. Coming up, Milk gets fired and wanders the country to find himself!
Harvey Milk Wanders The Country And Finally Finds Himself
Harvey Milk left California after being fired from his financial job and wandered the country. Over the next three years, he found himself back in the company of Tom O’Horgan working as a general aide. Everything changed for Milk when he met Scott Smith.
The couple moved to San Francisco in 1973. This time Milk stayed for good. They used the money they saved from touring to open a small camera shop in the Castro. From 1974 until 1977, Smith helped organize and run Milk’s political campaigns. He is credited with putting together Milk’s boycott of Coors.
The “Pooper Scooper Law” Was Milk’s First Act In Office
One month into office Harvey Milk began pushing for a law forcing pet owners to clean up after their dogs. The ordinance became known as the “Pooper Scooper Law” and was authorized easily. To show the importance of the new law, Milk purposely stepped on dog poo while cameras were rolling.
Milk played off the mess on his shoes as an accident. According to staffers, though, Milk spent hours before the press showed up looking for the perfect spot to step on dog poo. The act received national media attention.
The Castro Street Fair Still Runs Strong Today
The 2018 Castro Street Fair will be held on October 7, 2018. Harvey Milk started the fair in 1974 with the help from the Castro Valley Association. That year 5,000 people attended. Three years later, 70,000 residents turned the fair into a phenomenon.
In 2007, it was reported that 300,000 people attended the Castro Street Fair. All proceeds from the fair are donated to charity. The fair is one of several pieces of Harvey Milk’s legacy. As you’ll learn from the next few slides, Milk’s life is still being honored 40 years after his untimely death.
President Obama Honored Milk With The Presidential Medal Of Freedom In 2009
Former President Barack Obama awarded Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. At the ceremony, Obama said, “he fought discrimination with visionary courage and conviction.” Milk’s nephew accepted the medal for his uncle posthumously.
That same year, Anne Kronenberg co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation with Stuart Milk. Desmon Tutu, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Milk, currently serves as a member on the foundation’s board.
Harvey Milk Was Inducted Into The California Hall Of Fame In 2009
In 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted Harvey Milk into the California Hall of Fame. He then declared May 22 as “Harvey Milk Day” across the state. To honor “Harvey Milk Day” in 2014, the USPS released a Harvey Milk postage stamp.
Three years later Milk was inducted into the Legacy Walk. The walk is an outdoor display that celebrates LGBT history. Leading up to his enshrinement on the Legacy Walk, Milk had three exhibitions at the GLBT Historical Society. The San Francisco based museum is home to multiple personal belongings of Milk.
The USNS Harvey Milk Was Named By The Navy In 2016
The Navy held a naming ceremony for the USNS Harvey Milk in 2016. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus made the official announcement. Milk, remember, started his career in the Navy as a diving instructor during the Korean War. The John-Lewis class oiler will begin construction in 2018.
Stuart Milk approved of the oiler, saying, “It will further send a green light that honesty, acceptance, and authenticity are held up among the highest ideals of our military.” The USNS Harvey Milk is the second oiler to be named after a prominent civil rights activist.
Harvey Milk’s Story Went National In The 1980s
The nation learned of the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978c but didn’t know the entire story until 1982. Randy Shilt published his biography on Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, that year. The book received critical acclaim and a documentary followed in 1984.
Rob Epstein directed The Times of Harvey Milk” and won the Oscar for best documentary. The film was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2012 for being, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Next, another film about Harvey Milk, Milk, was released in 2008 and nearly swept the Oscars!
Sean Penn Won An Oscar Playing Harvey Milk
Sean Penn starred as Harvey Milk in the 2008 biopic Milk. He won an Oscar for his performance. The film’s screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, took home a Best Screenplay Oscar. He is one of few openly gay members of Hollywood to win the prestigious honor.
Milk was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Slumdog Millionaire. Critically praised, the film has been questioned for its historical accuracy. Richard Boyle, one of Milk’s political allies, said the film failed to tell the whole story. He claimed the film accurately captured Milk’s essence but missed out on key elements if Milk’s historic rise and tragic fall.