Today In History: Candlelights At City Hall

Jim Burroway

November 27th, 2008

Harvey Milk finally succeeded in becoming the first openly gay non-incumbent candidate to win a political office for two reasons. One, he refused to hide who he was; and two, he made it his mission to build alliances with groups that other gay activists thought were impossible to reach.

So to those who knew Harvey well, it came as no surprise that shortly after the 1977 election, Harvey was on good terms with Dan White, a conservative supervisor representing a blue-collar district in the city’s southeast. White, a former cop, was supported by the city’s police union whose leaders were angry over  city policies which they considered to be soft on crime and homosexuals. There couldn’t have been two politicians from more opposite ends of the political spectrum. The local media ate it up as the two made joint appearances on local talk shows where they both talked warmly of each other. Harvey began to privately telling friends that he thought White was “educatable,” and that the two might actually be able to work together.

The warm feelings didn’t last long. During the election campaign, White had made a centerpiece of his campaign his opposition to a proposed psychiatric treatment center in his district. Neighbors worried that the center would put “arsonists, rapists and other criminals” in their neighborhood. Harvey was inclined to support White, which would have given White the 6-5 majority he needed to block the facility. But as Harvey learned more about the center, he discovered that San Francisco children would be sent instead far away to a state hospital where they would be cut off from their families. He concluded that “they’ve got to be next to somebody’s house,” and switched his vote.

The loss infuriated White, who blamed Harvey for the loss. For the next several months, White would not speak to him or his aides. Other supervisors noticed that White stopped spending as much time at his office in City Hall, and he was sullen during the weekly board meetings.

White retaliated by switching his vote on Harvey’s gay rights bill. Before the vote on the psychiatric center, White voted for the bill in committee and spoke passionately for it, tying it to his experiences as a paratrooper in Vietnam. But when the gay rights law came before the entire board a week after the vote on the psychiatric center, White changed his vote. The bill passed 10-1.

These two episodes were the start of a bitter public feud between White and Milk. White opposed every street closing or permit involving the gay community — he was often the only supervisor to do so. But as the year went on, White became increasingly disillusioned with politics. He also found that the $9,600 per year salary wasn’t enough to support his wife and infant child. He had opened a potato restaurant at Pier 39, but that business was struggling. Citing these pressures, White abruptly resigned on November 10, 1978.

This resignation gave Mayor George Moscone a tremendous opportunity to reshape the Board of Supervisors. The makeup of the eleven-member board was roughly split 6-5, and White was part of the majority who favored of conservative, business-friendly, pro-growth policies. With White’s resignation, the Mayor now had the opportunity to tilt the balance toward those who favored a more neighborhood oriented approach.

White’s supporters in the business community and police union were alarmed at his sudden resignation. They met with him to promised some financial support, and urged him to ask Moscone to reappoint him to his seat. Meanwhile, Milk and other progressive leaders lobbied Moscone to appoint someone more in line with their views. The fact that Milk vigorously opposed White’s reappointment was an open secret. Randy Shilts, writing in The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, described an encounter between Charles Morris, a publisher of a local gay paper, and White at a political fundraiser. White appeared to be in a good mood, so Morris struck up a conversation with him. At one point, Morris suggested that “there are some in the gay community who think that you might be anti-gay.” White replied, “Let me tell you right now. I’ve got a real surprise for the gay community — a real surprise.”

Mayor Moscone set Monday, November 27 as the day he would announce whether he would reappoint White or name someone else. The night before, a reporter from KCBS called White to say that a source told her that he would not be reappointed. White refused to comment. He hung up the phone and stayed up all night, eating cupcakes and drinking Cokes. The following morning, his aide called to say that a group of his supporters planned on going to city hall to present Mayor Moscone with petitions and letters of support. Since his wife had already taken the car to go to work, Dan asked for a ride to city hall. He hung up the phone, got dressed, and loaded his .38 Smith & Wesson.

White’s aide dropped him off at City Hall. White paced around a bit, then found an open basement window. He jumped through the window, allowing him to avoid the metal detectors at the building’s entrances. He made his way to Moscone’s office, who agreed to meet with White in the outer office. White asked Moscone to re-appoint him to his former seat. Moscone declined, and their conversation turned into a heated argument. Moscone then suggested they move to a private lounge attached to the mayor’s office where they could speak privately. Once inside the small room, White pulled out his pistol and shot Moscone twice in the abdomen, then twice more in the head.

White then reloaded his gun and went down the hall to Harvey’s office. There, he asked to speak privately in an adjoining room. White later recalled that he began to scream at Harvey and that Harvey got up out of his seat. White then pulled his gun and shot Harvey three times in the chest, once in the back and two times in the head. White then fled City Hall, and eventually turned himself to his former co-workers at the police department.

Thirty years ago today, on November 27, 1978, tens of thousands of stunned mourners gathered in the Castro for an impromptu candlelight march to City Hall. The sea of candles stretched ten city blocks long. At the steps of city hall, Joan Baez led the crowd in singing “Amazing Grace” and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sang a hymn by Felix Mendelssohn.

Steve Schalchlin

November 28th, 2008

Jim this is a terrific write-up. And to add a note, this was the SF Gay Men’s Chorus first public performance. Today, they’re doing another memorial on the steps of City Hall and will be singing one of my songs, “My Thanksgiving Prayer,” which is a part of my song cycle for peace, called “New World Waking” which they’ll debut on Monday at Davies Symphony Hall.

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