Last updated on January 1, 2020
This past November marked forty years since the assassination of Harvey Bernard Milk (1930-1948), who is recognized as being the first openly gay politician to hold office in the United States. The 2008 film Milk, starring Sean Penn, brought Milk’s life back into public light, where public interest has continued to increase. In the City of San Francisco, he is revered as one of its greatest citizens and the Castro neighborhood where he operated his camera store and conducted his political campaigns, pays homage to him with a bar named in his honor. Throughout the streets of the Castro, his image can be found throughout and on occasion, tourists might be fortunate enough to encounter someone who knew Milk personally. On a visit to San Francisco a year ago, I did not have this fortune, but I did visit 575 Castro, the former site of his store which now serves as the base for the Human Rights Campaign. Standing in the middle of the floor felt surreal as the realization settled in that this was where Milk lived and worked nearly forty years prior. In the upstairs window at the front of the apartment where Milk lived, there is a full size image of him looking down at the street. It is as nostalgic as can possibly be. As I walked the Castro, I began to think, what if he were alive today? What would he think of progress made by the LGBTQ community? I think he would be proud but not satisfied, continuing to push for further advancement and acceptance of LGBTQ men and women in society.
Sadly there are many young gay men and women who still have yet to learn about Milk’s life and contributions to the gay rights movement. But fortunately for them and us, he left behind scores of speeches and writings devoted to the cause he wholeheartedly believed in. Part of this collection of speeches and writings contained herein, are appropriately titled An Archive of Hope, which brings the past alive as Harvey takes center stage in his own words. Frank M. Robinson (1926-2014), was a speechwriter for Milk and had a cameo in the 2008 film where he plays himself. He provides a foreword for the book, which he wrote in 2012, that is a testament to Milk’s legacy and some of the best writing I have ever read. It is not hard to see why Milk solicited his assistance in creating the speeches that would help define his legacy. On June 30, 2014, Robinson died at his home in San Francisco following a decline in health, due in part to heart problems. His death was confirmed by friend and fellow activist Danny Nicoletta.
Milk’s brilliance cannot be overstated and it is on full display in the book. The writings that are included are taken from newspapers that Milk contributed to, letters he wrote, sometimes to editors, and highlights from his most famous speeches. The book follows a chronological order and at the beginning of each section, the authors provide a back story to the writing at hand. It serves as a compliment to Milk’s words and helps the reader to follow along as Harvey challenges the establishment while throwing himself into the political arena as he runs for City Supervisor. And although he lost the first few races, his popularity increased exponentially and all in San Francisco knew that Milk was here to stay. What I found the most attractive in the book was Harvey’s foresight into the future. It is with profound sadness that I can say that many of his predictions about San Francisco have come true. His words were prophetic and had his vision for San Francisco come to fruition, the course of Californian politics would have undoubtedly taken a different course.
Reading Milk’s writings was a pleasure in itself. His ability to analyze and critique the system was beyond precise and his words are still relevant today. And while he did run for office, he was never a true politician. In his view, they were all hypocrites and for Harvey, there was no way he could join that club. Perhaps he was too driven, honest and outspoken for politics. Regardless, he never wavered in his dedication to the movement which he rightfully called the candidate in his tape recorded will. But as much as he railed against the persecution of the LGBTQ community, he also criticized the same community for its failures as well. His words of advice for the gay community can applied today as they were in the past. As Harvey believed, everyone, whether gay or straight, had a role to play in the movement. And that movement found itself on a collision course with the evangelical right, determined by any and all means to take away the rights of the LGBTQ community. They would find their icons in singer Anita Bryant and former Senator John Briggs. The advancement of California Proposition 6, also called the Briggs initiative, resulted in call to arms in the gay community and as Harvey points out, the forces mobilized in response to Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexuals. I had hoped to see more of the transcripts of the debates between Milk and Briggs included but as the authors point out, many were not recorded and others suffered from sub par sound. But from the small section that is included, it is clear that Harvey had mastered the art of politics without becoming a politician. At his core, he was an activist or even more plainly stated, a humanist.
No book about Milk would be complete without his campaigns to become a City Supervisor which finally resulted in victory in November, 1977 after several failed attempts. The book follows these campaigns and includes the text of his speeches following his history win. Harvey realized his work was far from over and continued to push forward until he succeeded with the successful vote of the gay rights ordinance that was opposed by only one Supervisor, Dan White, the man would later murder him. A year before his untimely death, Milk tape recorded his will, the full text of which is included in the book. And those words truly define the vision and goal that Milk had for the movement. The Mayor of Castro Street had arrived and had he lived, I believe he would have gone on to accomplish even greater things for the gay community and the State of California. Right now we find ourselves as nation, in the midst of a turbulent political climate where individuals rights are sometimes still under attack. Wounds of division and a short memory can combine to produce a society in which no one moves forward and we continue to make the same mistakes of generations prior. Whether you are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, contained within the pages of this book truly is an archive of hope.