Harvey Milk, the self-declared “Mayor of Castro Street” and pioneering advocate for LGBTQ civil rights, was an icon even in his own time. A hugely popular figure in 1970s San Francisco, Harvey used his big personality to lead the LGBTQ political movement and made history as the first openly gay man to hold political office in America. And though he wore his Judaism lightly — often introducing himself as a “New York Jew,” asking his non-Jewish boyfriend to wear a chai necklace — Harvey Milk’s unceasing drive to fight for social justice was steeped in his Jewish upbringing.
As a boy in Woodmere, New York, where his grandfather co-founded the Sons of Israel synagogue, Harvey grew up with stories of his family’s battles against anti-Semitism: In response to the local country club’s “no Jews” policy, his grandfather established a Jewish club; his father successfully fought the local school board when it had refused to hire a Jewish teacher on grounds of her religion. The Holocaust also loomed large in shaping young Harvey’s identity. Six days before Harvey’s 1943 bar mitzvah, the monthlong Warsaw ghetto uprising came to its tragic end, in which 13,000 Jews perished, many by fire, rather than surrender to the Nazis. The adults in Harvey’s life impressed upon him the heroism of the resistance fighters: They had fought to the very end, because the forces of hate and evil are always worth fighting — a lesson that would leave a lifelong imprint.
In college, Harvey joined a Jewish fraternity, went to Hillel and Zionist events and, when he moved to San Francisco in 1972 and opened a camera store that would become an important LGBTQ political gathering space, he hung his bar mitzvah picture on the wall. “Jews know we can’t allow discrimination — if for no other reason than we might be on that list someday,” he said. In 1977, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he sponsored a civil rights bill to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. He publicly called for a march on Washington to demand equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Harvey’s fight against discrimination also extended to championing the rights of workers, women, people living with disabilities, racial minorities and senior citizens.
But his tenure, and life, were cut short. On November 27, 1978, a disgruntled former city employee shot and killed Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Thousands attended their memorial service. Harvey’s murder sparked a nationwide call to action for equal rights — just as he would have hoped for his legacy. It turns out, Harvey had left behind a recording “to be played only in the event of my death by assassination.” In it, he urged others that no matter how impossible the battle might seem, they must keep fighting against injustice. “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he proclaimed, “let that bullet destroy every closet door.”