An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings – Harvey Milk, Jason Edward Black, Charles E. Morris and Frank M. Robinson
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.
This past November marked thirty-eight years since City Supervisor Harvey Milk and George Moscone were shot and killed by Dan White. Their murders and the sentencing of Dan White to just five years in prison, led to the White Night Riots and filled the LGBT community of San Franciscans with shame and disgust. After serving several years in prison, Dan White committed suicide in 1981. Milk’s life was adapted for the silver screen in the Gus Van Sant directed biopic Milk. Sean Penn assumed the role of Milk in what became on his greatest performances. Josh Brolin took on the role of the film’s antagonist, Dan White and turned in an equally great performance. They were joined in the cast by James Franco, Alison Pill, Diego Luna and Emile Hirsch who plays the role of activist Cleve Jones. Jones is the most energetic character in the film and serves as Milk’s second in command as they take of Anita Bryant, John Briggs and Proposition 6.
Nearly forty years after their groundbreaking efforts, Jones has penned this autobiography which is not only the story of his life but also about that remarkable time in the Castro when men and women came together to effect profound change in the way Americans thought about sexuality. And as one of Milk’s closest associates, he gives additional insight into how and why many of their decisions came about. The film is about Milk and because Jones is a supporting character, his life is never explored except for the fact that he is from Phoenix, AZ. But was we learn in the book, his life story is simply extraordinary and could easily be adapted for the silver screen itself. Having been a first hand witness to all the major hurdles to be overcome in the movement, he is a treasure trove of history and knowledge. And the revelations in the book about his life and those around him are intriguing and also surprising. As an activist for the rights of the LGBT community, it is to be expected that he faced a severe amount of hate, bigotry and backlash for his efforts. It is detailed in the book and will be tough for some readers to get through but it is necessary in understanding the importance of the movement in which he partook.
Incredibly, he came out to his parents at a young age, but as opposed to what is shown in the film, he had already traveled in and out of the United State and across it even before he formed his allegiance with Milk. The early part of his life is incredible but will resonate with the hearts and minds of those who have the passion for travel. His meetings with Milk and subsequent involvement in Milk’s campaign signified the alignment of two minds united in a common cause. Much younger than Milk, he becomes a student of the movement and quickly makes his mark. And following Milk’s death, he became one of the loudest voices in keeping Milk’s memory and legacy alive. But what is overlooked is his life after Milk’s death which took on yet another critical turn with the onset of the AIDS epidemic. While Milk is covered in the book, this is not the story of Harvey Milk, this is Jones story and this time, Milk is the supporting character.
Accurately portrayed in And The Band Played On, San Francisco became ground zero for the growing HIV epidemic originally believed to be a “gay cancer”. Today we know that the term is pure nonsense and was fabricated by those ignorant of how HIV is spread. His account of the growing crisis which affect those around him is heartbreaking but an all too common story of hundreds or perhaps thousands of LGBT men and women who lived during the era. He does not try to explain the crisis but does lend a voice to what he saw and heard through his experiences and relationships with many of the late leading figures such as activist Bill Kraus and author Randy Shilts. And his own story is guaranteed to leave the reader both shocked and angered in regards to the political and social climate that once existed broadly in America and in some places still does. In spite of everything that happened and his personal struggles, he is still here and his voice is still relevant. He is in an integral part in San Francisco and American history.
Jones is a lifelong activist and his work on behalf of the movement has never ended. In the second half of the book, he tells even more about the continuing movement, his role and life at the time. The battle for marriage equality became the most important crusade and the Supreme Court’s decision deeming parts of Proposition 8 unconstitutional, became a landmark moment in the mission for true equality. Jones was there as a witness and participant and his memories of the effort are important and a testimony that deserves both preservation and exploration. Many years after he is gone, we will look back on his words to understand the enormous amount of work that goes into a movement and the courage that is required to face the daily threat of harm and death. This is his story, one that transcends across all social spectrums and is a historical record of pivotal times in the continuing evolution of the United States of America.