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My name is Harvey Milk—and I want to recruit you.

Today’s blog post comes from Michael Hussey, education and exhibit specialist at the National Archives.

What do Sean Penn and Ronald Reagan have in common? Probably not a whole lot besides Harvey Milk.

In 2008, Penn played the role of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in the Academy Award–winning film Milk.

In 1978, former Governor Ronald Reagan, Supervisor Milk, President Jimmy Carter, and former President Gerald Ford all opposed a ballot initiative sponsored by California state senator John Briggs. The “Briggs Initiative” would have banned gay men and lesbians from being teachers or otherwise employed by California school districts.

Copy of the opening of Harvey Milk's speech that he sent to the White House. From the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

Milk, who had been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, gave a rousing speech at the city’s 1978 Gay Freedom Day celebration. In it, he challenged Briggs and others to reexamine American history.

On the Statue of Liberty it says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . .” In the Declaration of Independence it is written “All men are created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable rights . . . .” That’s what America is. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase those words from the Declaration of Independence. No matter how hard you try, you cannot chip those words from off the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Milk also expressed his frustration at the “silence from the White House . . . . There are some 15 to 20 million lesbians and gay men in this country listening and listening very carefully. Jimmy Carter, when are you going to talk about their rights?”

In case the President had not read the speech, Milk sent him a copy along with a note. He hoped that the President would oppose the Briggs Initiative and “take a leadership role in defending the rights of gay people.”

Letter from Harvey Milk from the holdings of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

President Carter did eventually state his opposition to the Briggs Initiative. Ronald Reagan, who would soon run against Carter for the Presidency, wrote an op-ed piece opposing the initiative. It was ultimately defeated at the polls in November 1978.

Milk’s speech and his letter to President Carter are included among the holdings of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

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Comments

Comment from Marisa Louie Lee
Time June 25, 2013 at 4:54 pm

What a great post in advance of PRIDE — City Hall in San Francisco has been beautifully lit in rainbow colors this week!

Comment from Sherry Haskins
Time June 26, 2013 at 10:55 am

Thanks you, Michael and Hilary, for posting this on this historic, happy day.

Comment from Jacob D
Time June 27, 2013 at 8:27 am

I’d love to see the entire speech but I can seem to find it on the web anywhere? Does the archives have a copy?

Hilary Reply:

It’s not digitized yet, but I can email you the pdf, if you like!

Jacob D Reply:

Yes, please! Can you see my email address through the comments or should I email you?

Hilary Reply:

I can see it through the comments. I will send it along to you now!