Harvey Milk was shot and killed in 1978 in a double homicide alongside Mayor George Moscone. Milk was a San Franciscan, political activist, open homosexual, and a civil rights leader. In his short time in politics, Milk became California’s first openly gay official and advanced the gay rights movement significantly. His assassination sent shocks through the San Francisco gay community, causing citywide mourning and cementing his place in history as a civil rights leader.
Thirty years later, in May 2008, on what would have been his 78th birthday, Harvey Milk’s bust was officially dedicated. It currently sits in the rotunda at San Francisco City Hall. To this day, Milk’s commemoration has continued with his eponymous biopic Milk, the memorialization of Castro Camera, and an impending rededication of Harvey Milk Plaza.
The bust’s history began in 2001, when the city’s board of supervisors voted unanimously to place a bust of Milk in city hall. Half a decade later, between 2006 and 2007, a contest funded primarily by the Bob Ross Foundation was run to decide on the bust’s design. The contest’s finalists were local artists Cedric Wentworth, Bruce Wolfe, and a team comprised of Eugene Daub, Rob Firmin, and Jonah Hendrickson. Daub’s team won with a design based on the portrait of Milk shown above, featuring his tie flapping in the wind and his trademark toothy grin.1
The bust cost $84,000 and was primarily funded by the Bob Ross Foundation with some minor donations from other individuals. The bust was finally installed in May 2008.2 Coincidentally, the bust was placed shortly before California’s ban on gay marriage was overturned, and several months before the critically-acclaimed biopic Milk was released.3
Harvey Milk was born in 1930 to a middle-class Jewish family in Woodmere, New York. Milk was very active in his high school, mainly playing sports. At this point, Milk already knew he was gay, but kept his sexuality hidden. In 1951, Milk graduated from the New York State College for Teachers with a degree in mathematics, and decided to join the US Navy. There is some ambiguity over whether he studied history as well: the Milk Foundation claims he did,4 but few other sources make note of this.
Milk’s post-collegiate career was varied. He joined the Navy during the Korean War, holding numerous positions before resigning in 1955 after his sexuality was questioned.5 From here, Milk moved back and forth between New York, San Francisco,6 and Dallas.7 Along the way, Milk met his partner Scott Smith.
In 1972, Milk and Smith settled in San Francisco and opened Castro Camera, a camera shop on Castro Street in San Francisco’s downtown.8 For the rest of his life, it would serve as his de facto base of operations. At one point, photographer Daniel Nicoletta worked at Castro Camera, whose portrait of Milk served as inspiration for the final bust’s design.9
The Castro, the neighborhood surrounding Castro Street, was San Francisco’s hotspot for gay culture since its first gay bar opened in 1963. As the Castro’s gay presence increased, so did targeted harassment: police had a heightened presence in the area, even raiding bars and arresting patrons. Assaults on gays and lesbians were commonplace.10
This discrimination was the primary fuel for Harvey Milk’s political desires. He decided that enough was enough and chose to run for a city supervisor position in 1973, but lost.11 Despite the loss, Milk continued his activism, mainly with organized labor unions. He famously used his connections to bars in the Castro to stage a boycott of Coors, forcing the company to employ homosexual workers and union laborers.12 The facts surrounding this event are somewhat ambiguous: most sources depict Harvey Milk as being the prime instigator and organizer of the Coors boycott, but others claim he only assisted.13
From here on, Milk was a leader in the gay rights movement, and took up his legendary moniker “The Mayor of Castro Street.” It is unclear whether or not Milk gave this name to himself - this uncertainty is briefly referenced in Milk, where his character says “…And it was about that time that someone first called me the Mayor of Castro Street, or I may have invented the term myself.”
He campaigned two more times before finally winning a supervisor’s seat in 1977.14 Harvey Milk’s power within the gay community allowed him to vote against senior members of the supervisor board without many repercussions. This included fellow supervisor Dan White, a conservative with an implicit anti-gay bias. Despite their differences, Milk and White were on good terms at first - in fact, Milk was the only city supervisor who attended White’s son’s christening - but over time, they became political adversaries.15 After a time, White almost always voted opposite of Milk.
White later resigned from his position after stating that his salary was not high enough to support his family. Only days later, White asked to be reinstated in his position, but was denied by Mayor Moscone at the urging of Milk.16 White was disgruntled by this situation and wanted revenge. On November 27, 1978, he assassinated Moscone and Milk inside of city hall.17 Contrary to popular belief, Milk was not assassinated because he was gay, but entirely because he was an enemy of Dan White.
Milk’s death sent shocks through San Francisco’s gay community, sparking a spontaneous candlelight vigil on the day of his murder.18 Thousands were in attendance. He was mourned by gays citywide, and is still mourned today: vigils have been held every year since the first.19
In contrast to the shocked gay community, Harvey Milk himself had anticipated his assassination. He recorded numerous audiotapes for release upon his death, featuring now-famous quotes, some of which were featured in Milk. In one tape, he says that the gay rights movement should continue without him: “I ask for the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give 'em hope.” Fittingly, this quote is emblazoned on the front of the bust’s plinth.20
Being a champion of the gay rights movement, he wasn’t just another murdered gay man: many consider him a martyr. Unlike many killed civil rights leaders, he was not assassinated for the cause he championed, but because he slighted a vengeful man along the way. His untimely death and larger-than-life status netted him numerous memorials in the following decades, including the dedication of Harvey Milk Plaza,21 the memorialization of Castro Camera,22 and the placement of his bust at city hall thirty years after his death - thirty years too late.
His memorialization has fittingly grown as gay Americans secure even more rights: Castro Camera was memorialized in 2003,23 after homosexuality was decriminalized nationwide; and the bust seen here was dedicated in 2008,24 shortly before gay marriage was made legal in California.
Harvey Milk was, and still is, an extremely important civil rights leader. Without his leadership, San Francisco's gay community would not have been as persistent, brave, and forceful in securing their rights. This bust is not just a monument to Harvey Milk, but a monument for all he stood for.
Here is another quote from Harvey Milk, sourced from one of his audiotapes:
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”25