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In Commemoration of Harvey Milk

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This piece is adapted from a speech Clarence B. Jones gave at the 35th Anniversary Dinner of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club on May 19.

Years ago, reasonable people and scholars believed that the Earth was flat and the center of the Universe. That was their belief system, at the time. Then, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish Renaissance astronomer, postulated and proved that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the Universe.

Later, Galileo, the father of modern observational astronomy, confirmed Copernicus' "heliocentric view." His scientific findings were denounced by the Roman Inquisition in 1615 as contrary to the belief system supported by the Catholic Church and Scriptures, at that time.

When Galileo later defended his views in his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, (published in 1632), he was tried by the Inquisition; found "vehemently suspect of heresy," forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Copernicus and Galileo were denounced because they challenged the belief system prevailing during their lives.

For almost three centuries, some people with white skin in our nation believed that they were endowed by their Creator with the divine right to enslave and keep in bondage millions of other human beings whose skin was dark, and who came from another continent. Chattel slavery was based on a religious, political, and philosophical belief system that sanctioned and justified the sale and purchase of human beings with dark skin.

This belief was so entrenched that, when the erudite men of the original 13 colonies met, in what they called their Continental Congress in 1787, to draft a written Constitution, they enshrined this belief in their new Constitution. It was used to determine the number of representatives each of the respective States would have in the newly created "Congress," one of the three co-equal branches of our government. For purposes of such representation, slaves were counted as "three-fifths" of a person.

The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were reasonable men. They enacted a Constitution based on their prevailing belief, at that time.

It took a Civil War and the enactment of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to remove the codification of slavery from our body politic. For years, however, into the 20th century, the belief system underlying slavery still directly or indirectly prevailed in several states throughout our country.

There were several persons, in and outside of government who challenged the belief system justifying the "peculiar institution "of slavery. Men in Congress like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. Persons outside of government like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Horace Greeley. And, of course, for pragmatic political reasons, to save the Union, President Abraham Lincoln.

For many years also, a belief system prevailed that women should not have the right to vote. Women's rights leaders advocated for inclusion of universal suffrage as a civil right in the Reconstruction amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments). Despite their efforts, however, these amendments did nothing to promote women's suffrage. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted an amendment to our Constitution, which was introduced in 1878. However, it was not until 41 years later, when Congress submitted the 19th amendment, based on their work, to the states for ratification on August 18th, 1920.

The "legal basis" for the then-prevailing belief that women were second-class citizens was a part of our culture for many years. Thanks to Gloria Steinem, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro, and Marilyn French's seminal book, The Women's Room.

In spite of the historic landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, segregated public school systems and segregation in places of public accommodations and interstate and intrastate bus and train transportation remained. In 1956, a seamstress, Rosa Parks, and a 26-year-old Negro Baptist preacher publicly challenged the prevailing belief system in Montgomery, Alabama, that only white people could sit in the front of a bus. This preacher went on to politically and morally transform the United States of America, challenging the belief system that justified racial segregation.

Concurrent with some of the recent belief systems mentioned, there remains currently an entrenched belief system that seeks to define and limit the "24/7/365" rights of a substantial segment of people in our country because of gender, transgender, or chosen lifestyle and sexual preference. All sorts of ideological, philosophical and theological constructs have been developed, articulated, and enacted into laws limiting or excluding some of our brothers and sisters from the total benefits of citizenship in our participatory democracy.

Recently, Kobe Bryant, an LA Lakers superstar basketball player, criticized an NBA referee during a game by calling the ref "a faggot," in an effort to "de-legitimize" the authenticity of the referee's penalty call against him. Bayard Rustin, the gay black civil rights activists, with whom I worked closely during my years assisting Dr. King, would remind us that:

There are very few liberal Christians today who would dare say anything other than blacks are our brothers and they should be treated so, but they will make all kinds of hideous distinctions when it comes to our gay brothers... There are great numbers of people who will accept all kinds of people: blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, but who won't accept fags.That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights.

History demonstrates that no group is safe from prejudice, bigotry, and harassment as long as any group is subject to special negative treatment (1986 addition of sex orientation to those protected categories of civil rights in New York).

The social critic Lewis Mumford suggest that each generation should re-examine and re-interpret that part of its past that gives its present new meanings and new possibilities. And, so, today, those of us who are not LGBT must raise our voices like those of Copernicus, Galileo, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr, Ella Baker, Bella Abzug. We must give our generation "new meanings and new possibilities." We can do this by saying, once and for all: NO MORE. NOT IN OUR NAME, are we going to let our LGBT brothers and sisters be treated as second-class citizens!!

Earlier this year, I wrote a book, BEHIND THE DREAM - The Making of the Speech That Transformed A Nation. It describes events leading up to and surrounding Dr. King's celebrated "I Have A Dream" speech. Relevant to my remarks this evening is part of the speech that Rabbi Joachim Prinz, then president of the American Jewish Congress, delivered on that occasion, prior to Dr. King speech. Rabbi Prinz said:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, the most tragic problem is silence.

Looking back at the history of our nation, there appears to be a political common denominator that made change in the belief systems that justified the exclusion of people of color and women from participation in the full benefits of citizenship and equality under our Constitution. That "denominator" was the acquisition and exercise of sufficient political power by those who challenged these belief systems to end those policies and practices based on the oppressive ideology of racial exclusion and sexism.

My life's journey, especially my work with Martin Luther King, Jr., has convinced me that talk, beseeching, pleading, and asking to be treated as a fully fledged first-class citizen, while necessary, have their limitations. A more analytic review of how fundamental change has successfully been achieved in our country teaches us that such change only occurs from the acquisition and exercise of sufficient political power to demand, not ask; to mandate, not plead, for the changes we seek!

This means we must re-drink the waters of advice from the anti-slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglas and the legendary 20th Century African-American leader, A. Phillip Randolph.

Douglass reminded us in 1857;

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle... If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others." (The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies, speech, Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857)

In the 1950s and 60s, A. Phillip Randolph counseled the labor and civil rights movement that "we have no permanent friends, nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Your 'friend' today, may politically be your 'enemy' tomorrow. Your 'enemy' today, may be your political 'friend" tomorrow. In other words, WHAT MATTERS IS: with whom you build a coalition to protect and advance your "permanent interests."

I know when I quote Frederick Douglass and A. Phillip Randolph in this place, for this event, it's like "preaching to the choir." One way we can celebrate the memory and legacy of Harvey Milk is to commemorate him within in the pantheon of passionate civil rights activists whose lives came to really make a difference in the world.

After three unsuccessful campaigns, in 1977, Harvey Milk, a Korean War veteran naval officer, was elected to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors. His election was the first of an openly gay elected official in the United States, a landmark event. Harvey was an exemplar and template of Douglass and Randolph's political advice. To be elected, he knew he had to gain the support of all segments of his district.

Remember though, his decision to run for County Board of Supervisors came only after he had decided that it was time to stop begging and pleading to have his rights and those of the LGBT community recognized and respected. Harvey, in the spirit of Isaiah, 6:8, in effect said: "I heard the voice of the Lord saying, whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then, said I, Here am I; send me."

His real life experience in the Castro District of San Francisco, confirmed the wisdom of Frederick Douglass that "power concedes nothing without a demand." Harvey knew that sometimes you have to stop pleading, stop begging and stop beseeching. There comes a time when you have to nonviolently kick ass, take no prisoners, and tirelessly acquire the political power to mandate what you seek from your government and society.

On election night, Harvey Milk reminded his supporters: "This is not my victory -- it's yours. If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight."

Had he lived until today, he would have been 81 years of age.

Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke at Stanford University on April 14th, 1967. He reminded us that:

It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, 'Wait on time.' Somewhere we must come to see that social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.

So, I say to my friends and colleagues in the civil rights movement, and community and church-based organizations and leaders, that the protection and advancement of our permanent interests requires that we, once and for all, immediately, effective yesterday, cease our direct or indirect participation in or support of a belief system which relegates our LGBT brothers and sisters to less than the total and complete benefits WE enjoy as citizens. These must include, of course, the elemental and fundamental right to marry the one you love, who may be of the same sex; and, remain entitled to all of the rights, privileges and immunities enjoyed by us so-called "straight" people.

Let me make it plain: the protection and advancement of the permanent interests of both the "straight" and LGBT communities require that we actively seek to build a working coalition to acquire and exercise sufficient political power to mandate what we want; rather than just pleading and petitioning for what we believe to be just. We must take names and 24/7 hold to account those who seek to block or limit the full enjoyment of our divinely given rights. This is the lesson that the history of the struggle to protect and insure the sanctity of human rights and dignity teaches us.

This is what the legacy of Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr. requires of us.