Today’s blog post comes from Michael Hussey, education and exhibit specialist at the National Archives.
What do Sean Penn and Ronald Reagan have in common? Probably not a whole lot besides Harvey Milk.
In 2008, Penn played the role of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in the Academy Award–winning film Milk.
In 1978, former Governor Ronald Reagan, Supervisor Milk, President Jimmy Carter, and former President Gerald Ford all opposed a ballot initiative sponsored by California state senator John Briggs. The “Briggs Initiative” would have banned gay men and lesbians from being teachers or otherwise employed by California school districts.
Milk, who had been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, gave a rousing speech at the city’s 1978 Gay Freedom Day celebration. In it, he challenged Briggs and others to reexamine American history.
On the Statue of Liberty it says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . .” In the Declaration of Independence it is written “All men are created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable rights . . . .” That’s what America is. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase those words from the Declaration of Independence. No matter how hard you try, you cannot chip those words from off the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Milk also expressed his frustration at the “silence from the White House . . . . There are some 15 to 20 million lesbians and gay men in this country listening and listening very carefully. Jimmy Carter, when are you going to talk about their rights?”
In case the President had not read the speech, Milk sent him a copy along with a note. He hoped that the President would oppose the Briggs Initiative and “take a leadership role in defending the rights of gay people.”
President Carter did eventually state his opposition to the Briggs Initiative. Ronald Reagan, who would soon run against Carter for the Presidency, wrote an op-ed piece opposing the initiative. It was ultimately defeated at the polls in November 1978.
Milk’s speech and his letter to President Carter are included among the holdings of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.