On May 22, 2008, a monumental bronze bust of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office anywhere in the world and a martyred hero of the gay rights movement, was unveiled and officially dedicated in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, but was shot to death by an assassin a year later at S.F. City Hall along with the Mayor of the city, George Moscone. The unveiling of the commemorative statue, officiated over by San Francisco’s current Mayor, Gavin Newsom, occurred on what would have been Milk’s 78th birthday.
The realistic bronze bust of Milk stands atop a solid granite base, situated upon a pedestal faced with a bas-relief bronze plaque, and taken as a whole the monument is 75 inches high and weighs over 200 pounds. The slain gay rights activist is portrayed flashing his famous winning smile, his tie fluttering in a gentle wind. The relief plaque portrays three scenes from Milk’s life and times, his service in the U.S. Navy, riding in a Gay Pride Parade, and a depiction of the massive spontaneous candlelight march held by thousands in San Francisco the night of the assassinations. A quote by Milk appears on the pedestal as an inscription - “I ask the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give ‘em hope.”
Some years ago the S.F. Board of Supervisors passed a resolution authorizing the statue, and a private committee raised the funds to secure and build the memorial. The San Francisco Arts Commission held a design competition, and selected a panel of jurors to judge the submissions. Out of three finalists, the commission was awarded to the Daub Firmin Hendrickson (DFH) sculpture group, a Berkeley, California based team that excels at creating figurative realist sculptures and bas-relief plaques cast in bronze.
DFH is a partnership between sculptors Eugene Daub, Rob Firmin, and Jonah Hendrickson, and their collaborative, traditional style bronze statues have appeared as public art works across the nation. In their own words, the trio specializes in “sculptures devoted to the aesthetic illumination of important histories and uplifting allegories, created in monumental scale cast in bronze.” I commend the Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group, not just for continuing the tradition of realistic monumental public sculpture, but also for seeking and accepting such an important commission as the Harvey Milk memorial. DFH should also be applauded for avoiding the “great man” theory of history that so often explains momentous events being the work of solitary individuals. By including panels on their memorial sculpture showing a mass movement of people, DFH gives us the view that history is made when enough people move together towards a common goal.
The assassin of Milk and Moscone was Dan White, a former police officer and a disgruntled law maker who had just resigned from the S.F. Board of Supervisors. Armed with his police revolver and extra ammunition, White secretly entered City Hall through a window in order to avoid detection and shot the two politicians at close range. The gunman surrendered himself to the police and his trial would be closely watched by the nation - it ended up being important for several reasons.
White denied the shooting was premeditated, and his legal team successfully argued that he suffered from “diminished capacity” due in part from eating too many Twinkies - the media came to call this the “Twinkie Defense”. Rather than receiving a murder conviction, White was instead found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and given a seven year prison sentence. San Francisco’s gay community and its allies immediately reacted to the verdict by filling the streets with angry protest, and thousands turned violent. On the evening of the “White Night Riots”, twelve S.F. police cars were set ablaze by furious rioters. White would serve slightly more than three years of his prison sentence before committing suicide, and in 1982 the California legislature would do away with “diminished capacity” as a legal defense. These events and more are covered in the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.
Harvey Milk suspected that someone would eventually try to assassinate him, so he recorded a statement to be played in case of that eventuality. In that public statement Milk said; “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” While some obstacles barring gays from enjoying full democratic rights have been done away with - others still remain. The memorial bronze of Harvey Milk placed in San Francisco’s City Hall should be a constant reminder of what has yet to be achieved.