On May 22, we honor the life and legacy of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in California and a leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. Time magazine included Harvey Milk on a list titled “The 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.” Milk was not only an advocate for the LGBT community, but for all minorities. He believed in safe, strong neighborhoods and supported public education, affordable childcare, and equal rights for all.
Elected to the position of city supervisor in San Francisco, he held office for one year before his life was tragically cut short in 1978 by a political rival who opposed Milk’s liberal views. Harvey Milk’s contributions to the cause of equality for all people has been recognized in a number of ways, including the issuance of a stamp with his picture on it, the posthumous awarding of the Medal of Freedom, and the creation of a holiday in his memory. Harvey Milk Day was officially established as a holiday in 2009 when Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor of California, signed it into law. Although Milk died, his work continues today through the work of the Milk Foundation, founded by his nephew Stuart Milk, in honor of his uncle.
Why Harvey Milk Day is Important
A. Equality is still an ideal for which we are fighting
Harvey Milk ran on a platform of equal rights for all people regardless of gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, or race. Although we’ve made some momentous gains, gaps still remain. Women currently earn only 70-93% of what their male counterparts make, depending on the field. Transgender bathroom use is being debated state by state, and there’s tremendous controversy over the immigration ban. The fight for equality for which Harvey Milk’s life was sacrificed remains as relevant today as it was in 1978.
B. Harvey Milk gave his life for the cause of equality
Harvey Milk knew he was risking his life from the time he began to push for equality. As a homosexual politician, he received a number of death threats. However, this did not stop him from advancing the concept of equal rights. As city supervisor, he fought against a state-wide initiative that discriminated against homosexuals teaching in public schools. Harvey Milk won that battle and formed the Castro Village Association, which became a model for other LGBT communities in the United States. Milk wanted this message to go forth: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” He gave his life for the American ideal of equality.
C. Milk believed government represents individuals
With divisions in the country today, it is important to go back to a basic civil liberties lesson in which Harvey Milk believed. He believed that every person was important and valuable and needed representation. He believed elected officials needed to advocate for those whose voices were not being heard or who did not have a voice to speak for themselves. He promoted diversity in government, believing people needed to see themselves represented across all branches of government. He truly believed in a government by the people, of the people and for the people.
How to Support Harvey Milk Day
1. Fly a rainbow flag
The rainbow flag, also known as the gay rights flag, promotes the social and political causes of the LGBT community. It has also been called the peace flag and the freedom flag. No matter which moniker you favor, it’s a true representation of Harvey Milk who
believed in equal rights for all, peace, and freedom.
2. Read Milk’s speech “Hope”
The “Hope” speech was the speech Harvey Milk gave when he announced his candidacy, and he later gave an expanded version at the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco in 1978. Although the speech opens with a joke, its content is serious and he believed, “You have to give people hope”. He also knew he was fighting a difficult battle for equality and rights for homosexual people. He stated, “The first gay people we elect must be strong.” Finally, he believed, “Hope is never silent”.
3. Donate to support the Harvey Milk Foundation
The Harvey Milk foundation was founded in the wake of Milk’s death by his nephew, Stuart Milk and by Harvey Milk’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, who wished see Milk’s message for equality come to fruition. The non-profit organization’s goal is to
celebrate the diversity of humanity and to be sure no group is excluded from the rights afforded society on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, age, ability or ethnicity. You can visit the milkfoundation.org to find out how to support this organization.