Last August the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing in Birmingham, Ala. As I disembarked the plane and took an escalator down to baggage claim, I passed one of those ubiquitous signs of greeting that airports tend to have, but what caught my eye is that the chirpy salutation came from "Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport." I wondered what a "Shuttlesworth" was, and filed it away in the back of my mind. I knew the name was familiar, but in my three-flights-to-get-there fog I just couldn't access the right synaptic pathway.
Later that day, I toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and lo and behold, there was an entire display about Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. A co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he had helped lead and organize non-violent demonstrations for civil rights in Birmingham. He survived bombings, attacks and a constant barrage of death threats with dignity, grace, and unswerving courage. In 2008, while Reverend Shuttlesworth was still alive though retired from active preaching, the Birmingham City Council and then the Birmingham Airport Authority officially changed the airport name in tribute to his heroic work.
It was therefore with some measure of satisfaction that I saw that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, led by Supervisor David Campos, was considering adding the name of Harvey Milk to the moniker for San Francisco International Airport. I can't say that I knew Harvey Milk -- I arrived in the Bay Area the year that he was assassinated -- but then again, neither did I know Fred Shuttlesworth. But I was fortunate to serve in the same body, the Board of Supervisors, that Harvey Milk made history in when he was elected, and the contribution of Harvey to the recognition of the dignity and worth of gay men and women, to the cause of civil rights and political struggle and triumph for the entire LGTB community, cannot be understated. A champion, a ceaseless fighter, a relentless spirit and, ultimately, a martyr, the impact of Harvey Milk cannot and could not be confined merely to the 47 square miles of our beautiful city. His spirit can be felt in the halls of Congress and inside the walls of the West Wing, and in the souls of those who believe in equal and civil rights for all.
As Shuttlesworth was to Birmingham, so is Milk to San Francisco. And both left legacies far beyond the borders of the cities to which they are both irrevocably linked.
What better way to remind and educate the world of the historic life and times of Harvey Milk than at one of the great crossroads of the world, our own international airport?