1978 Report: Murder & Mourning in San Francisco

On the 35th anniversary of Harvey Milk's death, The Advocate reprints its report of the days and events that followed.

BY Advocate.com Editors

November 27 2013 3:05 PM ET

From the January 11, 1979 issue of The Advocate, by Scott Anderson:

SAN FRANCISCO — Mayor George Moscone, a long-time friend of gay people, and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down in their city hall offices Nov. 27 in what was apparently an act of political vengeance.

Police charged former supervisor Dan White, who had resigned form his post less than three weeks earlier, with two counts of murder and with illegal firearms possession. At the moment of the mayor's death, board of supervisors president Dianne Feinstein became acting mayor and was later confirmed as mayor until next November.

Mayor Moscone was a long-time friend of the gay community, and had campaigned vociferously against Prop. 6. Supervisor Milk was the city's first openly gay official, and was at the time of his death, one of only two up-front elected gay politicians in the country. Already emerging as a leader of gay people at the national level, Milk was acknowledged by President Carter as "a leader of San Francisco's gay community, who kept his promise to represent all constituents." Milk left behind several tape recordings, one of which named candidates he favored and opposed to succeed him as supervisor.

Reactions to the murders came from stunned friends and colleagues of the two men. They were both remembered universally as activist politicians who listened with compassion to their constituents. President Carter said, "In every conversation with Mayor Moscone, I always knew that the people of San Franciso and California were uppermost in his mind and heat. He was a good and kind man, and he will be sorely missed. As supervisor, Milk had come to be widely regarded as a symbol of the aspirations of gay people to participate openly in mainstream politics, and in society at large."

Charles F. Brydon, co-chair of the board of the National Gay Task Force, called Milk "an important visible leader to our community and an example to everyone of the humanity of gay people." Mayor Dianne Feinstein said of the murdered supervisor, "The fact of his homosexuality gave him an insight into the scars which all oppressed peoples wear. He believed that no sacrifice was too great a price to pay for the cause of human rights." Gerry Parker II, chair of the California State Democratic Party Gay Caucus, said "Harvey Milk epitomized the idealism and courage of the great freedom fighters in American history. Harvey's persistence gave new hope for all Americans, both gay and nongay." Even Milk's political adversaries remembered him with admiration. State Sen. John Briggs, who debated Milk several times in the course of the controversial Prop. 6 campaign said that despite their political differences, "I came to develop a respect for Harvey as a man who pursued that in which he fervently believed, though I thought he was wrong. There are many demagogues in this world, and he was not one of them."

The two liberal leaders were honored by a massive outpouring of grief unprecedented in city history. They both lay in state beneath the city hall rotunda on Nov. 29, as thousands of San Franciscans filed past the closed caskets to pay their respects. Various memorial services throughout the week honored the dead officials. On Nov. [27], the evening of the shootings, more than 25,000 people carrying the candles marched silently from the heavily gay Castro area — part of District 5, which Milk represented — to city hall to pay tribute to the slain supervisor. A Tuesday afternoon service packed Temple Emmanuel-El, where Milk was commemorated by fellow Jews and other friends. An interdenominational service Thursday drew an overflow crowd to the Opera House, where Milk was warmly remembered by aides and fellow politicians. According to his wishes, Milk was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. He is survived by a brother, Robert Milk, 51, a Long Island, N.Y., salesman.

A Wednesday rosary and Thursday mass were said for Moscone, followed by a private interment at Holy Cross Cemetery. Moscone is survived by his widow Gina, and their four children.

The accused, Dan White, resigned his supervisor job Nov. 10, saying he could not support his wife and infant on the $9,600 annual half-time salary. Five days later, after family and friends had offered him financial support, White asked for the job back. While city attorneys examined the legality of reinstating White, the mayor, responding to complaints from White's constituents, decided to name someone else to the post. Meanwhile, Milk lobbied against retaining White.

Moscone was killed in his inner office during a private meeting with White, just 30 minutes before a press conference at which the mayor planned to name Don Horanzy, a neighborhood activist and political unknown, to succeed White. Police allege that after shooting Moscone, White crossed city hall and shot Milk. White had gained access to city hall by telling a building engineer he had lost his keys. After leaving city hall, White turned himself in at a police station, where later he reportedly confessed to the killings.

White, 32, represented District 8, in south San Francisco, a largely working class area with sizable minority populations. During his campaign for supervisor in 1977, White emphasized sympathy for those who believed San Francisco's white middle class was losing ground to minority groups. "I am not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups or radicals, social deviates, incorrigibles," one campaign brochure said. White was the only one of 11 supervisors to oppose the city gay rights bill that Milk had lobbied for, and which Moscone signed into law. White, a Vietnam veteran and former policeman and fireman campaigned for supervisor on an anticrime platform. At a meeting last year at the Northern California Coalition for Handgun Control, White had spoken out for stricter regulation of private weapons.

If convicted, White might face the death penalty under the provisions of Prop. 7, which became law when voters overwhelmingly approved it Nov. 7. The law invokes capital punishment for "special circumstances," which include assassination of public officials. The murder charges against White, brought by San Francisco District Attorney Joseph Freitas, state that he killed the men "in retaliation for and to prevent the performance of [their] official duties."

The week before his death, Harvey Milk had issued a press release calling for a march on Washington, D.C., next summer to dramatize the need for national gay rights legislation. Supporters of Milk pledged to carry on his work in organizing the march. Anne Kronenberg, a close aide to the supervisor and his campaign manager, received a standing ovation when she spoke of "completing Harvey's dream. The time is now."

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