Assassination of Harvey Milk, 1978

Originally published at:

On This Day in Jewish History: November 27, 1978


Harvey Milk was assassinated. He was among the first openly gay elected officials in the US and in the years since his death, has become one of the most iconic figures of the LGBT movement. Milk’s story reached across the country in 2008 when Hollywood adapted it for a major motion picture, Milk, starring Sean Penn. But even before this high-profile bio-pic, Americans had come to know Harvey Milk through Randy Shilts’ biography, The Mayor of Castro Street and Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk was born on Long Island in Woodmere, New York to Jewish parents of Lithuanian descent. It would be almost forty years before he found his way into politics. He went to college in Albany and joined the Navy during the Korean War, eventually earning the rank of Lieutenant. He worked as a teacher, an insurance statistician and on Wall Street. Through it all he kept his homosexuality largely a secret. Then, in 1969, as San Francisco was emerging as home to the most vibrant gay community in the US, and as the counter-culture had reached critical mass, Milk moved to California permanently. Ensconced in the Castro neighborhood, he opened a camera store and, fueled by a growing commitment to political action, not just on behalf of gay rights, he ran several unsuccessful campaigns for city office. Undeterred, Milk became an outspoken leader of the gay rights movement, especially after several cities had passed anti-gay ordinances. When, in 1976, the San Francisco city government was reorganized such that city supervisors would be elected by neighborhoods, Milk seized the opportunity and defeated 16 other candidates to be elected a supervisor in November 1977. His victory was historic. But Milk’s time in office would be cut short. Just ten months after being sworn in, he, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone, were assassinated by former city supervisor Dan White. Both shootings took place in City Hall. White had resigned his supervisor job only to change his mind and ask to be reinstated. Moscone turned him down. White also resented Milk’s vote to place a mental health facility in his district. But White may have also understood that his own commitments were being overwhelmed by the shifting political terrain of San Francisco, changes symbolized by the smart and charismatic Harvey Milk. White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years and nine months. He served five and 21 months after his release took his own life. Harvey Milk, however, lived on in spirit and in 2009 was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.