The Harvey Milk I Knew
In this excerpt from Cleve Jones's memoir, <i>When We Rise: My Life in the Movement</i>, the prominent gay rights activist delivers a speech that crystalizes Milk's impact.
On November 27, 1978, Dan White, an embittered former San Francisco city supervisor, shot and killed then-mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk at city hall. He was furious that Moscone had refused to reappoint him to his seat, and enraged at Milk, who'd campaigned against him.
It was an assassination that would forever change the fight for gay and lesbian rights. Milk was the first openly gay person to hold public office in California, and has been called the most influential LGBTQ activist in American history; when he fell, he became a martyr, his name a rallying cry for a gay rights movement nationwide.
Through it all, Cleve Jones was there. Milk became a mentor and friend to a young Jones in the 70s, and after his death, Jones went on to play a pivotal role in AIDS and LGBTQ activism throughout the gay liberation movement. Today, Jones' memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, is out from Hachette Books.
Six months after the murders, White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter by a lenient jury, and the city would explode in what came to be known as the White Night Riots, as thousands descended upon the Castro neighborhood and city hall to wreck havoc. In the following excerpt from When We Rise, Jones recounts a march on the one-year anniversary of Milk's death, in which a new era for the American LGBTQ movement dawned for those who would carry his legacy.
The White Night riots changed everything for us in San Francisco. We were more powerful, and we could feel it. There were changes coming and we felt the wind at our backs. It was going to take some time, though.
One immediate effect of Harvey's death was that plans for the first national march on Washington for gay and lesbian rights began to move forward. Activists had pushed for such an action for years, but most local groups and the tiny new national organizations opposed the notion and called it a waste of precious resources. But Harvey had reached out, built bridges, and taken time to stroke the egos of local leaders across the country. The news of his death inspired people to say yes, we will march. Ten years had passed since Stonewall. A commemoration made sense, especially after the violence of the riots.
I attended some of the regional organizing meetings and was happy when the march was scheduled for Columbus Day weekend. I'd met a hot bartender from Washington, DC, and wanted to spend my 25th birthday, October 11, in his arms and bed.
On Sunday, October 14, I marched in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The Metro subway had opened in 1976 and I took a train from my bartender friend's apartment. I will never forget riding the long steep escalator up from the tracks to Dupont Circle with the chants and clapping of hundreds of marchers, then reaching the top and walking out into the sunlight and the sight of the graffiti, spray-painted boldly in thick black letters on the wall of the station: "Harvey Milk Lives!"
It was an inspiring march, about a hundred thousand strong. At the rally, DC mayor Marion Berry welcomed us. We heard speeches from Harvey's successor, Harry Britt; Metropolitan Community Church founder Troy Perry; and feminists Charlotte Bunch, Kate Millett, and Eleanor Smeal. I was particularly moved by poet Audre Lorde's speech and was beside myself with joy when I found myself sitting on the Washington Monument lawn, smoking a joint with Allen Ginsberg and a bunch of cute gay hippie boys.
Back in San Francisco, I began to organize another march: for November 27, 1979, the first anniversary of the murders at city hall. When I mentioned it to my friends, I discovered that everyone was already talking about it, and we all agreed we should march again down Market Street as we had the previous year, when the blood of Harvey Milk and George Moscone was still fresh on the floor of city hall.
I started writing a speech. I wanted to write about Harvey, about both the actual man and the legend that he could become. For our new movement, for our emerging little communities, we needed legends, shared histories of our people's struggles that would help unite a people so separated by distances and division. The legend of Harvey Milk could have that power. He could reach those who were isolated and alone; he could connect us and inspire and inform. If we remembered.
On Tuesday, November 27, 1979, as the sun began to set, many thousands of people gathered at the intersection of Castro and Market Streets to begin the long walk to city hall. We marched in silence, led by a solitary drummer and both the American and rainbow flags. The crowd filled Civic Center Plaza again with the light of candles. It was so beautiful, so powerful, and so terribly sad. I took a deep breath and lifted the microphone.
"We are here tonight to dedicate ourselves to the legend of Harvey Milk, that word of his dream and his struggle may spread across this and all nations. We are here tonight to continue his struggle, continue his dream. We are here to spread the word, so that our sisters and brothers everywhere may know of the life and death of Harvey Milk.
We send this message to all the small children growing up queer in a straight world. We send it to all the strong women and gentle men, to the old faggot uncles and silent spinster aunts. We send them our love and the legend of Harvey Milk, so they may be strengthened and their lives dignified, as we who knew Harvey were, ourselves, strengthened and empowered. We are here to build a legend, but also to remember the reality of Harvey Milk the man, our friend and neighbor. Harvey, smiling behind the counter of his Castro Camera Store. Harvey, the joker, Harvey the clown. Harvey, who debated John Briggs. Harvey, in blue jeans and a torn sweater on the 8‑Market bus.
We must always remember the man behind the legend that we are building—the man who was neither genius nor saint, the man who was not our movement's first martyr. We must remember that the work done by Harvey Milk is work we all can share, that his achievements are ones to which we can all aspire. We must remember as well, that our defeats, our humiliations, our losses were also all shared by Harvey in his time.
Yes, we know well that Harvey Milk was not our first martyr, nor our last. He had a lover named Jack and one summer day in '78 Harvey came home to find Jack's body hanging from the ceiling—a suicide.
I wonder, how many of you here tonight have lost a friend or loved one to suicide? Raise your candles high, how many?
How many of you know a woman who has experienced the pain and terror of rape? Let me see your candles, how many?
How many of you have been attacked, how many of you have been beaten? By bashers or the police, how many?
How many of you have heard the taunting cry from behind, 'hey faggot, hey dyke,' how many?
That is why we are here tonight. That is why we marched on Washington; that is why we will keep on marching. That is why Harvey lived, that is why Harvey died. That is why we will not rest until Harvey's dream is fulfilled: when lesbians and gay men of every age, race, and background come out to join in the struggle with all of us who seek lives of freedom and dignity and joy.
It will be a long struggle. There will be decades of campaigns and leaders and, no doubt, many martyrs. But let no one misunderstand, our movement is powered by the determination of a people too long denied, too long abused. A people who seek only the freedom to live; to work and to love. Let no one misunderstand—we are deadly serious, we grow daily in power, and we will not be stopped.
That is why we are here tonight."
Excerpted from the book When We Rise by Cleve Jones, published on November 29, 2016 by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group.