40 years ago today at 11 am on a beautiful Monday morning in 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and gay civil rights leader and SF Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed in cold blood by disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White.
White was disappointed that Moscone had refused to reappoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors, from which White had just resigned, and that Milk had lobbied heavily against his reappointment.
On Monday, November 27, 1978, the day Moscone was set to formally appoint another Supervisor to White’s now vacant seat, White had a friend drive him to San Francisco City Hall. He was carrying a five-round .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chief’s Special loaded with hollow-point bullets in his service revolver from his work as a police officer, with ten extra rounds of ammunition in his coat pocket. White slipped into City Hall through a first floor window to avoid the metal detectors at the front entrance.
White had requested a meeting that morning with Mayor Moscone and requested again to be reappointed to his former seat on the Board of Supervisors. Moscone refused, and their conversation turned into a heated argument.
Wishing to avoid a public scene, Moscone suggested they retreat to a private lounge adjacent to the mayor’s office, so they would not be overheard by those waiting outside. As Moscone lit a cigarette and proceeded to pour two drinks, White pulled out his revolver. He then fired shots at the mayor’s shoulder and chest, tearing his lung open. Moscone fell to the floor and White approached Moscone, poised his gun 6 inches from the mayor’s head, and fired two additional bullets into Moscone’s head, killing him instantly.
Dan White then calmly walked out of the mayor’s office
Diane Feinstein who was then President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, saw White exit Mayor Moscone’s office from a side door and called after him. White sharply responded with “I have something to do first.”
White proceeded to his former office, when he met Harvey Milk on the way, asking him to step inside for a moment. Milk agreed to join him. Once the door to the office was closed, White positioned himself between the doorway and Milk, pulled out his revolver and opened fire on Milk. The first bullet hit Milk’s right wrist as he tried to protect himself. White continued firing rapidly, hitting Milk twice more in the chest, then fired a fourth bullet at Milk’s head, killing him instantly. White then coldly shot a fifth shot round into Harvey Milk’s skull at close range.
White fled the scene as Feinstein entered the office where Milk lay dead. She felt Milk’s neck for a pulse, her finger entering a bullet wound. Horrified, Feinstein was shaking so badly she required support from the police chief after identifying both bodies. Feinstein then announced the murders to a stunned public, stating: “As President of the Board of Supervisors, it’s my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”
Dan White eventually turned himself in to San Francisco Police detective Frank Falzon, a former co-workers at his precinct. He then recorded a statement in which he acknowledged shooting Moscone and Milk, but denied premeditation despite the fact that he entered City Hall secretly and came prepared with the pistol and extra ammunition.
That day the city of San Francisco ground to a halt. Many offices and businesses closed. and people wept openly in the streets. Strangers hugged each other, trying to offer comfort. But there was no comfort to be had.
40 years later and there is still no comfort today.
Milk became an icon in San Francisco and a martyr in the gay community worldwide. In 2002, Milk was called “the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States”. Anne Kronenberg, his final campaign manager, wrote of him: “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.
Harvey Milks martyrdom is a painful reminder of the length and difficulty of the journey to freedom. A journey we still take today and must continue fighting until we achieve full equality.
Harvey Milk a true LGBT hero and legend. His actions and words must never be forgotten. To this day we must listen to them, learn from them and follow them.
This is Harvey’s legacy to us.
You see there is a major difference–and it remains a vital difference–between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office. Gay people have been slandered nationwide. We’ve been tarred and we’ve been brushed with the picture of pornography. In Dade County, we were accused of child molestation. It’s not enough anymore just to have friends represent us. No matter how good that friend may be.
The black community made up its mind to that a long time ago. That the myths against blacks can only be dispelled by electing black leaders, so the black community could be judged by the leaders and not by the myths or black criminals. The Spanish community must not be judged by Latin criminals or myths. The Asian community must not be judged by Asian criminals or myths. The Italian community should not be judged by the mafia myths. And the time has come when the gay community must not be judged by our criminals and myths.
Like every other group, we must be judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay, those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo–a myth, a person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment. A tenth of a nation supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children–and no offense meant to the stereotypes. But today, the black community is not judged by its friends, but by its black legislators and leaders. And we must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and legislators. A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope.
The first gay people we elect must be strong. They must not be content to sit in the back of the bus. They must not be content to accept pablum. They must be above wheeling and dealing. They must be–for the good of all of us–independent, unbought. The anger and the frustrations that some of us feel is because we are misunderstood, and friends can’t feel that anger and frustration. They can sense it in us, but they can’t feel it. Because a friend has never gone through what is known as coming out. I will never forget what it was like coming out and having nobody to look up toward. I remember the lack of hope–and our friends can’t fulfill that.
I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who’ve lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors, be they black looking for an almost-impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings. I use the word “I” because I’m proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends because I’m proud of you. I think it’s time that we have many legislators who are gay and proud of that fact and do not have to remain in the closet. I think that a gay person, up-front, will not walk away from a responsibility and be afraid of being tossed out of office. After Dade County, I walked among the angry and the frustrated night after night and I looked at their faces. And in San Francisco, three days before Gay Pride Day, a person was killed just because he was gay. And that night, I walked among the sad and the frustrated at City Hall in San Francisco and later that night as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people, people whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings and people who I never saw before but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope.
And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and more offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.
So if there is a message I have to give, it is that if I’ve found one overriding thing about my personal election, it’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.
In a controversial verdict that led to the coining of the legal slang “Twinkie defense,” White was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder and served only five years of a seven-year prison sentence.
Two years after his release Dan White would return to San Francisco where he taped a garden hose to the tailpipe of his car , stuck the other end through a car window, turned on the ignition and committed suicide. In his hands, he clutched photographs of his three children and his wife.
Dan White did not kill himself out of guilt. He did it because his killing Harvey Milk was going to follow him for the rest of his life.
Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.