Nov. 27 marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Harvey Milk. Below is an adapted excerpt friend and activist Cleve Jones sent to Windy City Times from Jones' book, When We Rise, to mark the occasion.
I woke up early on November 27, 1978 and got to City Hall before my boss, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. I was a student intern and eager to impress Harvey, who was also a friend and neighbor on Castro Street.
Unfortunately, Harvey was less than impressed by my diligence as I had forgotten to bring back to the office a file that I'd taken home with me. Harvey sent me home to retrieve the file.
Walking down Castro Street an hour later, a bus slowed down to stop at 18th Street. A woman I recognized from the Women's Building yelled at me out of the bus window, "Cleve, it's on the radio, they shot Mayor Moscone." Clutching the file, I jumped into a taxi. As the cab sped down Market Street, I wondered who "they" were. I figured it was either death squads from People's Temple or the cops.
The driver dropped me off on Van Ness Avenue at the western side of City Hall. I ran in, seeing the police swarming around the Mayor's office on the other side of the building. The cops frightened me and I ran up the stairs. The Board of Supervisors was on the second floor and each Supervisor had a small office opening to a private hallway that ran parallel to the public hallway. There was a passageway that connected the ornate Supervisor's Chambers to the reception area and the hall to the individual offices.
Harvey had given me a key to the passageway and as I let myself in I saw even more police officers running up the stairs. I felt panic in my chest and turned left towards the offices, looking for Harvey when Dianne Feinstein and an assistant rushed past me. Feinstein's sleeve and hand were streaked with dark red.
I looked down the hallway and saw Harvey's feet sticking out from Dan White's office. I recognized his second hand wingtip shoes immediately.
Then my memory shifts to slow motion.
I float to the door of White's office and peer in. There is a cop there, on his knees, turning Harvey's body over. I see his head roll. I see blood, bits of bone, brain tissue. Harvey's face is a hideous purple. I feel all the air leave my lungs. My brain freezes. I cannot breathe or think or move. He is dead. I have never seen a dead person before.
I struggle to comprehend, and as my mind begins to understand what my eyes are seeing. The only thing that I can think is that it is over. It is all over. He was my mentor and friend and he is gone. He was our leader and he is gone. It is over.
We are there for hours, trapped in his little office as they bundle up his body. People come in. More cops. We find Harvey's old cassette player and the taped message he had recorded in anticipation of his assassination.
I'd known of the tape and teased him a bit, "Who do you think you are, Mr. Milk? Dr. King? Malcolm X? I don't think you're important enough to be assassinated." We press the play button.
And now he is dead and it is all over and we are listening to his voice tell us that he always knew that this is how it would go down.
This is what he expected.
This is what he was willing to do.
This is what had to happen.
And all I can think, all I can say to myself is, "It's over. It's all over." And then the sun goes down and the people begin to gather.
They come from all over the Bay Area: young and old; black and brown and white; gay and straight; immigrant and native-born; men and women and children of all races and backgrounds streaming into Castro StreetHarvey's streetfaces wet with tears, hands clutching candles. Hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands fill the street and begin the long slow march down Market Street to City Hall, a river of candlelight moving in total silence through the center of the city.
There were songs and speeches but I remember none of them. I stood there in Civic Center Plaza in the midst of an ocean of candlelight, in front of the building where Harvey died, in the middle of the city he had come to love and that had come to love him back in equal measure. And now it was all over.
My friends and I walked slowly back to Castro Street. Police cruisers lined Market Street and followed the returning marchers but they kept their distance. Had they been closer we might have heard what they were hearing: over the police radio, the cops were singing.
"Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.
From glen to glen and down the mountain side…
Oh Danny Boy, Oh Danny Boy, I love you so!"
I was wrong. It wasn't over. It was just beginning.
Today, over 500 members of the LGBTQ community have been elected to public office. We serve as members of the House of Representatives and the US Senate. We are Mayors and City Council members. We serve on School Boards and State Legislatures. We are Governors and judges and county supervisors.
Harvey would be proud of the progress we have made but he would also warn us that everything we have gained could be swept away. He would caution us to be on guard, to build coalitions and to care for each other. He understood that no victories are necessarily permanent and that we must all be vigilant. In the face of right-wing extremism and growing division, he would talk of hope and a better world to come.
Forty years later, Harvey Milk lives.