Here in the Bay Area, November is our own season of dreadful anniversaries. Last week, we took note of the 35th anniversary of the mass killings at Jonestown. Just mentioning that name can reawaken the horror of that 1978 episode: the tension at the People’s Temple settlement in Guyana as Congressman Leo Ryan arrived to meet with leader Jim Jones and investigate conditions there; how some Jonestown residents menaced Ryan and the journalists who accompanied him; how Ryan and others in his party were shot and killed as they prepared to fly out of the jungle; and finally, how Jones led the more than 900 settlement residents in a death ritual.
Jonestown overshadowed a political drama that was playing out in San Francisco at the time — the resignation of a freshman member of the Board of Supervisors, Dan White. A former firefighter and police officer from the Outer Mission, he’d been elected in the city’s first district elections in November 1977. But just a year later, he resigned the position, only to change his mind and ask to get the job back. Mayor George Moscone at first seemed willing to reappoint White to the board, then decided not to. One of those who reportedly urged Moscone not to reappoint White was another first-year supervisor, Harvey Milk, a gay-rights crusader and the first openly gay man elected to public office in California.
Thirty-five years ago today, I was taking someone over to the old Greyhound station on 7th Street, just south of Market. It was midday, and as we walked up Mission Street, an older man, a guy who looked like he might be living on the street, stopped us and shouted, “They shot the mayor! They shot the mayor and the supervisor!” The first thing I thought of was Jonestown. What the guy was saying sounded so crazy and scary, I told him to get away from me and continued on to Greyhound.
The bus station had those old “TV chairs” — molded plastic chairs with miniature black-and-white televisions built in. If you fed the TV a quarter, you could watch for maybe 15 minutes. The first thing I noticed when we got to Greyhound was that a lot of those TVs were in use and almost everyone was watching the same thing, a report on the shooting of George Moscone and Harvey Milk. I don’t completely trust my memory on this — I’m not sure this moment was shown on live TV or not — but I think I started watching just as Dianne Feinstein, the president of the Board of Supervisors, announced that the mayor and the supervisor had been killed and that Dan White was the suspect. People at the bus station gasped in disbelief, just as they did at City Hall, where Feinstein was making the announcement. That footage is still wrenching to watch.
At that moment, the entire city seemed to be unhinged and crazy. And the story would become more incredible with White’s “diminished capacity” defense based in part on his poor diet; his acquittal on murder charges (he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served just over five years in prison); the rage and riot that followed the verdict; and White’s eventual suicide.
Of course, something other than shock and grief emerged from the darkness of that day: a determination that Milk’s legacy should live. And it has. In death, Milk’s stature has grown to that of a globally recognized champion of human rights. In San Francisco decades later, one of Moscone’s successors as mayor declared same-sex marriage legal, launching a movement that’s seen the gay marriage become the law in 16 states and the District of Columbia.
One of my newsroom colleagues, Kat Snow, recalled earlier today that the determination to turn the tragedy of the Milk-Moscone murder into a movement goes back to the hours after the killings. The night of Nov. 27, 1978, thousands of people marched from the Castro to a vigil at San Francisco City Hall. One of those in attendance was singer Holly Near, who had composed a song in response to the killing, “Singing for Our Lives.” That song became an anthem for human rights campaigners worldwide. Below, Near performs the song with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the assassinations. And here’s one version of the lyrics (the video contains others):
We are a gentle angry people
And we are singing, singing for our lives
We are a land of many colors
We are gay and straight together
We are a peaceful loving people