Featured Document: Harvey Milk

Today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion in the National Archives History Office.

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Harvey Milk at Mayor George Moscone’s desk, March 7, 1978. (Photo by Daniel Nicoletta)

A letter from San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk to President Jimmy Carter is on display in the National Archives’ East Rotunda Gallery until June 29, 2016.

In the June 1978 letter, Milk asks President Carter for his support in defeating ballot Proposition 6, which would have banned gay and lesbian individuals from working in the California public school systems.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He used his platform as supervisor to promote LGBTQ rights, and other public initiatives such as free public transportation, increased access to affordable child care, and a police oversight committee.

One of Milk’s main goals during his tenure as supervisor was to defeat Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative—named after state legislator John Briggs, who sponsored the legislation.

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Harvey Milk’s speech at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day celebration, 06/25/1978. (Jimmy Carter Library, National Archives)

Proposition 6 aimed to ban gay and lesbian individuals from working in California public schools and would have made their firing mandatory. Milk campaigned against Proposition 6 throughout California, attending every event Briggs hosted to protest the proposition.

Milk also spoke out against Proposition 6 in a speech he delivered at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978, which saw a record number of attendees. The speech, subsequently referred to as the “Hope Speech,” became instantly famous and was reported on throughout the United States.

In the speech, Milk called for his “gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight” against Proposition 6 and other similarly discriminatory legislation in an effort to promote gay rights in California and across the United States.

A portion of the Hope Speech will also be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery until June 29th.

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Harvey Milk’s speech at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day celebration, 06/25/1978. (Jimmy Carter Library, National Archives)

Milk references this speech in his letter to President Carter, saying “In it, I called upon you to take a leadership role in defending the rights of gay people. As the President of a nation which includes 15-20 million lesbians and gay men, your leadership is vital and necessary.”

Milk goes on to stress the impact Proposition 6 would have on individual rights, and emphasizes that it is necessary to defeat such legislation to protect the human rights of all citizens.

It is unknown what effect Milk’s letter had on President Carter’s stance on Proposition 6, although Carter publicly opposed the bill, citing its potential infringement on individual rights.

On November 7, 1978, the proposition was defeated by more than 1 million votes. President Carter’s opposition may have played a role in its defeat. This was an important victory for Milk, the constituents he represented, and gay rights in general.

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Letter from Harvey Milk to President Carter regarding the Briggs Initiative, 6/28/1978. (Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, National Archives)

Only a few weeks after Milk’s hard-fought efforts to defeat Proposition 6 were realized, he was assassinated in San Francisco City Hall by Dan White, a former member of the Board of Supervisors. Mayor George Moscone was also killed. President Carter expressed his shock at the killings, and sent his condolences to the Milk and Moscone families.

Harvey Milk’s contributions to the gay community were long-lasting, and in 2009 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his activism and work for the gay community.

For more information about Harvey Milk and the Briggs Initiative, read Education and Exhibits Specialist Michael Hussey’s 2013 blog post.

And plan your visit to the National Archives today to see Harvey Milk’s letter and speech in the East Rotunda Gallery.

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