On Nov. 27, 1978, George Moscone, San Francisco’s 37th mayor, and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, were fatally shot within moments of each other at their offices in City Hall. The gunman was none other than the men’s former colleague, Supervisor Dan White.
The slayings came nine days after news spread of the People’s Temple mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana — where many Bay Area residents lost their lives — and news of the deaths at City Hall reverberated deeply throughout a city already dealing with great loss.
Moscone and Milk were well-respected in The City — Moscone as a supporter of appointing minorities and women to political boards, and Milk as a staunch advocate for gay rights, including helping to get a stringent gay-rights ordinance approved.
This year, on the 35th anniversary of their deaths, they continue to be remembered for the values they stood for, and they stand as a lasting influence for some who have taken on similar causes.
“Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk represented the best of San Francisco and truly represent what we stand for,” Mayor Ed Lee said in a statement. “[Moscone] is remembered as a mayor who embraced and celebrated diversity. And [Milk] … left a legacy that lives on today in San Francisco and throughout our nation.”
On the evening of the assassinations and in the following years, marches and vigils have been held to pay tribute to the men’s lives.
Today’s 7 p.m. commemoration, including a march from Castro and Market streets to City Hall and a subsequent memorial vigil, will spotlight The City’s housing crisis.
Cleve Jones, producer of the march and a former student intern in Milk’s office, recalled how the gay-rights leader was a strong proponent of affordable housing, which Jones says continues to remain a primary issue for San Francisco today.
With some housing advocates calling the evictions taking place throughout The City a crisis, Jones believes if Milk were alive, he would be fighting against such evictions and be deeply concerned about the threat to neighborhoods by development.
The commemorative event will focus not just on remembering the men, but also the politics they represented, he said.
“It’s because both George Moscone and Harvey Milk were true progressives who dedicated their lives to bettering the lives of working-class people, of immigrants, gay people and minorities. We’re going back to that,” Jones said.
Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club President Tom Temprano also found it noteworthy that city activists are battling many of the same issues Milk fought, including the displacement of residents, more than three decades later.
“He was a housing advocate and wanted to ensure that all these marginalized communities had housing here in The City. It’s disappointing that 35 years later, we’re still having to have that same fight that Harvey had to be able to keep diverse communities here in San Francisco,” Temprano said.
Moscone’s continuing legacy is one of an effective mayor who governed for all of The City’s diverse communities, not just one particular set of economic interests, Temprano said.
The 35th-year remembrance of Milk’s and Moscone’s deaths have not been limited to the anniversary. The Gay Men’s Chorus, which had its first live performance during the vigil on the night of the assassinations, held a seasonlong tribute to Milk this year culminating with performances of “I Am Harvey Milk” in June. Milk’s story is not just relevant to San Francisco, said chorus artistic director Tim Seelig.
The chorus sang in the “I Am Harvey Milk” oratorio, with the message that each person can find the embodiment of Harvey Milk in themselves, Seelig said.
“The reason we chose ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ is because we wanted everybody who sat in the audience… listening to the recording, to find that part of themselves that is Harvey Milk,” he said.
While Milk has gained notoriety in films and pop culture, Jones believes he should be remembered for being a man who cared deeply about his city.
“He was a real person who actually lived, and he was not a genius or a saint, but he was a very good person, a very honest man who really loved The City and all of the people who live here,” Jones said.