KB Brother Harvey Milk
While many KB alumni went on to notable careers, Harvey Bernard Milk ’51, the visionary human rights leader, groundbreaking political luminary, and seminal figure of the LGBTQ rights movement is justifiably the most famous.
Milk, was a Jewish kid from Woodmere who came to college in 1947. He majored in mathematics, served as a sports reporter for the State College News and was active in student government. When Milk became a member of Kappa Beta, it had been open to non-Jewish members since 1946 but was still an all-Jewish fraternity. Considering what we know now, it’s not surprising that Milk played a role in the evolution of the fraternity into a more diverse organization. In the Fall of 1949, KB brothers Milk, Don Cohen, Howie Rosman and Phil Malafsky became friendly with a freshman, Robert Barron ’52 who was not Jewish. Another KB brother, Sy Fersh ’50 who worked in a cafeteria with Barron asked him if he would accept a bid to join KB. Barron declined, believing that KB would reject him because he wasn’t Jewish. During the following Spring of 1950, Milk, Cohen, Rosman, Malafsky, Fersh and Bill Kirman ’52 (Barron’s first college roommate who had joined KB the previous semester) convinced Barron to accept a bid and he became the first non-Jewish member of the fraternity. Robert Barron became a “recruiting machine” and was credited for the large Spring ’50 and 1951 pledge classes, the majority of which were not Jewish. Kappa Beta had become more diverse, and its diversity made KB a better fraternity.
Following his graduation in 1951, Milk joined the U.S. Navy and served as a diving officer in San Diego during the Korean War. He later served on the submarine rescue ship Kittwake. In 1955, Milk, by then a lieutenant (junior grade), was forced to accept an “other than honorable” discharge from the Navy rather than face court martial for his homosexuality. After his discharge, Milk returned to Long Island and worked as a teacher.
Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 and opened a camera shop in the Castro, a neighborhood that had become a sanctuary for the city’s gay population. In 1973, Milk announced his candidacy for the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors on a platform advocating gay and lesbian rights, individual freedom, and economic reform. Although the grassroots campaign was defeated, Milk proudly stated, “Win or not, the fact that we’re willing to wage a hard, uphill fight for what we feel is right will provide help and courage to others.”
In 1975, Milk again campaigned for supervisor and lost. The following year, Mayor George Moscone appointed him to the Board of Permit Appeals, making Milk the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States. Dubbed “The Mayor of Castro Street,” Milk mobilized the community and helped register thousands of voters. He also partnered with the local Teamsters Union and co-organized a successful boycott of Coors beer to protest the company’s discriminatory anti-union policies – one of the earliest instances of a gay community realizing its collective power through an economic boycott.
In 1977, Milk ran for supervisor a third time and won, making him the first openly gay elected official in California. Milk’s victory made national and international headlines and served as a triumphant milestone for the LGBTQ community. Milk used his platform to encourage others to come out of the closet as a critical first step toward achieving their rights. In March 1978, Milk authored a landmark ordinance signed by Mayor Moscone that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing in San Francisco. Supervisor Milk also was instrumental in the fight against California ballot initiative Proposition 6, which sought to ban openly gay teachers from working in the state’s public schools. The initiative’s defeat at the ballot box in November was a validation of the political power of the LGBTQ community and its allies.
Due to his high public profile as the first openly gay elected official in California, Milk attracted a torrent of hate mail and many death threats. In a chilling forecast, Milk recorded a living will on November 18, 1978, proclaiming, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Nine days later, a disgruntled former supervisor, Dan White slipped through a basement window at City Hall and assassinated Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk in their offices. That evening, more than 25,000 grieving San Francisco Bay Area citizens congregated in the Castro before marching to City Hall in a candlelight vigil, sending a powerful and eloquent message that the struggle for gay rights would not end with Milk’s death. Six months later, when White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and received a light sentence, a community demonstration at City Hall turned violent. The “White Night Riots” served notice that the LGBTQ community would no longer quietly endure injustice.
“Harvey Milk Lives!”, graffiti painted on a Castro Street wall around the time of the “White Night Riots” has proved to be prescient. Milk’s legacy is seen and felt in the gains for LGBTQ rights made during the decades since his assassination. Milk once declared, “If you help elect more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.” In 2015 the Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage as a legal right. Milk’s vision of increasing representation in local, statewide, and national political offices peaked with the Rainbow Wave in November of 2018, when a record number of openly gay, lesbian, and transgender candidates were elected to public office. As this is written, the U.S. Senate has advanced a bi-partisan bill called the Respect for Marriage Act that would protect same-sex and interracial marriages, clearing a major hurdle towards final passage.
Milk said, “there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We’ve given them hope.” He recognized that the fight for equality and human rights must continue as long as one person is denied their full measure of freedom. Following his assassination, Milk’s final campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg wrote, “What set Harvey apart from you and me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real for all of us”. To LGBT men and women around the world, Milk’s courage, passion, and sense of justice symbolized the freedom to live life with authenticity and his life remains an inspiration to all people committed to civil rights, equal opportunity and an end to bigotry.
In 1999, Time Magazine included Milk on its list of the 20th century’s most influential people. In 2004, he was honored by the New York City School System when it opened the Harvey Milk High School, an alternative school for gay and transgender students. In 2009, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On November 21, 2021, U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro launched a John Lewis-class oiler, USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO-206), the first Navy ship named after an openly gay person. Harvey Milk Terminal 1 at the San Francisco International Airport features a photographic exhibition,Harvey Milk: Messenger of Hope. Indeed, “Harvey Milk Lives!”
For further information on Harvey Milk:
- Harvey Milk – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_Milk
- The Times of Harvey Milk Documentary – Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jet-Ubwk5l8
- The Official Harvey Milk Biography – https://milkfoundation.org/about/harvey-milk-biography/
- Milk. The 2008 biopic directed by Gus Van Sant. Sean Penn won an Oscar for his leading role.