What You Get For Hit and Run: A Look at The City Hall Murders and The Dan White Murder Trial
Writer’s comment: The assignment for History 180C was simple: find a topic that interested you and write on it. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to write, no direction and no thesis. So, following the guidance of Professor Barber, I found a topic that sparked an interest—the life of Harvey Milk. Milk’s was a name that I knew, but did not know why.
The paper, the class, and especially the professor, allowed me to uncover and understand the events in San Francisco as a continual stream in the history of American politics and not a chance happening without explanation or reason. As Milk himself said about his journey in a judgment I now apply to mine, “I think it’s been worth it.”
Instructor’s comment: Max wrote this paper for History 180C: The Growth of American Politics since 1900. I wanted students to write papers based on primary sources rather than on historians’ interpretations. History students need to grapple with creating their own interpretations and do so best when they can pick their own topic. To make clear my expectation for original research, I required students to submit a progress report, including five primary sources. Frankly, when Max submitted this report, he was floundering. He didn’t have sources or a focus. I failed the progress report, explaining he had to find original sources. Worried, he sped into action and did the hard research in the library. I was thus stunned by the paper’s narrative and analytical quality. His retelling of the murders of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White sophisticatedly plays with historical chronology. In so doing, Max skillfully solved a problem that regularly challenges historians: how to tell the histories of two related but separate strains in history that come together at a certain point. His solution was innovative, yet also respectful of the ambitions and struggles of two political groups in San Francisco. Despite Max’s major in Political Science, he earned the label “historian” in this piece.
—Lucy Barber, History Department
In 1992, Pat Buchanan acknowledged a segment of America’s population that expressed a growing discontentment of the cultural and social changes occurring in the country. He claimed that, in essence, America must take back the cities and towns from the immorality and sin that had gripped the people of the country; there must be a crusade to save our cities in what he deemed the “culture wars.” With all the advancements and progress created by social movements of the sixties and seventies, some Americans felt that they were being engulfed by immorality, a decline of the fiber and moral character American held to be true and constant. The culture wars of Pat Buchanan were never more evident than in San Francisco in 1978 and 1979. There, the trial of Dan White for the murders of openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone served as a battleground for the culture wars. The verdict itself was not an anomaly or a random act against the gay community, but rather a culmination of anti-gay sentiments and backlash from the progress that gay rights movement had made.
The Progression of Things
The movement was going through a renaissance. At no other time in history than in the 1970s had members of the gay community experienced such progress and advancement — both politically and culturally. The tide, as many gays believed, had changed; no longer was the traditional system of politics against homosexuals, but rather the impetus for great change and unprecedented results. As a signal of the growing momentum towards change for the better, San Francisco — one of the epicenters for the gay community, by 1977, had three openly gay officials appointed to important city commissions, a sheriff that hired an openly gay deputy, its first elected openly gay official in Harvey Milk, and a mayor, George Moscone, who won with a coalition of neighborhood groups and minorities, especially with the gay community.1 The Briggs Initiative, an anti-gay legislation affecting homosexuality in schools, failed to pass; San Francisco signed what some considered to be the most stringent city ordinance, which prohibited the discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation.2
Moscone ushered in a breath of fresh air for San Francisco politics that was unprecedented. He became one of the first city officials to look past the barriers and stereotypes; Moscone used to say, “If they’re the best people I can find, I don’t care if they’re gay.”3 Known as the “defender of liberal causes,” Moscone’s mayoral victory “signaled a great shift in the city’s power structure with the mayor appointing dozens of new faces to the many boards and commissions that run San Francisco.”4 Journalist Scott Anderson noted, “By consecutively naming three gay commissioners to head the Board of Permit Appeals (Harvey Milk, Rick Stokes, and David Scott), Moscone in effect created a permanent gay seat on the board.”5
Milk, who became supervisor in 1977, changed his message from getting people to start talking about homosexuality when he first started campaigning to urging homosexuals to start speaking out for themselves after his election. He said, “If every gay person were to come out only to his/her own family, friends, neighbors and fellow workers, within days the entire state would discover that we are not the stereotypes generally assumed.”6 Just by simply becoming San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official, Milk opened a door of hope that the gay community previously could not even reach or see. As supervisor, Milk was instrumental in passing San Francisco’s gay ordinance, challenging state Senator John Briggs in several heated and sulfurous debates over the Briggs Initiative and defeating that proposition. The Briggs Initiative, if passed, would have allowed school boards to fire teachers that practiced, advocated, or indicated an acceptance of homosexuality. With its defeat, the gay rights movement found the light at the end of the tunnel. To the gay caucus of the Democratic party in 1977, he commented that hope was a thing that the gay community together could give to others nationwide; Milk continued:
So if there is a message I have to give, it is that if I’ve found one overriding thing about my personal election, it’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.7
A general sense of euphoria of success spread throughout the movement. Gay activist Morty Manford said, “This was a very idealistic era when young people felt they could change the world. We truly felt we were part of history. We were doing something new. We were doing something righteous. We were part of the generation of committed youths.”8 The movement had come so far.
The progress that seemed so powerful to many of the activists involved in the gay rights movement faded in the shadow of the murders of two of their leaders, George Moscone and Harvey Milk. All the accomplishments, all the initiatives defeated and ordinances won, and all the positions on city commissions and boards lost their luster as two of the recognized leaders of the movement were shot and killed by former city Supervisor Dan White.
Read All About It: Murder in San Francisco
The headlines were simple: “San Francisco Mayor Slain; City Supervisor also Killed; Ex-Official Gives Up to Police” and “City Hall Murders: Moscone, Milk Slain — Dan White Is Held.” The makings of a true drama came to unfold in San Francisco. On November 27, 1978, San Francisco Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk were shot and killed by ex-Supervisor White in a gruesome show of violence and, what a consensus of reporters and commentators deemed, political vengeance. Three weeks prior to the City Hall murders, White resigned his job as supervisor on November 10, stating that he could not support his wife and son on the $9,600 annual half-time salary. Several days later, after receiving financial support from friends and family, White asked for his job back. In response to complaints from White’s constituents along with Milk’s lobbying for a replacement, Moscone decided to name someone else to the position.
Just hours before Moscone was to name the replacement, White shot and killed Moscone in his office and then proceeded down the hall to do the same to Milk. In a horrific show of violence, White shot Moscone four times — two in the chest and abdomen area followed by two to the right side of the head; Milk received a total of five shots — three in the chest and abdomen area and two to the back of the head.9 White turned himself in hours later and confessed to the murders. The two officials died instantaneously and with their deaths, the innocence and euphoria of the gay rights movement disappeared as well. “I feel frightened,” Holly Pierce, who worked in the main library near City Hall, said. “I feel frightened, as if something is going on all around me. There’s no sense, there’s mesmerization, irrationality, sickness, craziness and it’s all at random.”10
An outpouring of emotion after the deaths of George Moscone and Harvey Milk echoed the loss that the gay rights movement experienced and the grief that a city and a nation underwent as well. “I think we all share a sense of outrage and shame and sorrow and anger,” said Supervisor Dianne Feinstein, who was sworn in as Mayor after Moscone’s death. The city should go into a “state of very deep and meaningful mourning, express its sorrow with dignity and inner examination.”11 There was a “stunned silence in San Francisco.” Journalist Eugene Robinson described the scene:
District Attorney Joseph Freitas, who would later prosecute White, said in a prepared statement, “Today is beyond a doubt the saddest day in the history of San Francisco. The human mind shrinks from the reality of these events. Both these men were champions of human rights, and their loss is a crushing blow to our city. It touches every head and heart in the city they so well-served.”13 The reaction was widespread. Despite their political differences, state Senator John Briggs, whom Milk had debated furiously over Proposition 6, added, “I came to develop a respect for Harvey as a man who pursued that in which he fervently believed, though I thought he was wrong. There are many demagogues in this world, and he was not one of them.”14
The expressions of sorrow were followed by the outpouring of grief. Only hours after the deaths of Milk and Moscone, flowers and other items found their way to the steps of City Hall, and later that night, 30,000 members of the community came together to march from the heart of the Castro to the steps of City Hall — a candlelight vigil in remembrance of their fallen allies and comrades. Six months later the same site would erupt in anger and rage. On May 21, 1979, the site where people expressed such sadness became ground zero for an eruption of fury. About 5,000 demonstrators ransacked and rioted in the Civic Center around City Hall in response to the verdict of the Dan White murder trial. What was a moment of grief, mourning, and hope would be overshadowed by moments of sheer frustration and the realization that, despite all Harvey Milk and George Moscone had done for San Francisco and the gay rights movement, the gay community had not progressed as far as they had thought. Perhaps the euphoria had ended or never really existed.
Loss of Heroes, Loss of Innocence
On May 22, 1979, the gay community sat by their televisions, listened to their radios and read their newspapers as the verdict for the Dan White murder trial came in. Facing two charges of murder, White, if convicted, faced the possibility of the death penalty under the provisions of Proposition 7, which made it a capital punishment crime under “special circumstances,” which included the murder and assassination of public officials. District Attorney Joseph Freitas brought charges on White stating that he killed Milk and Moscone “in retaliation for and to prevent the performance of [their] official duties.”15 Assistant DA Thomas Norman told the jury that “your verdicts in this case are the products of the evidence and the truth.” He went on to describe the situation: “They [Milk and Moscone] were unarmed and defenseless” when White “‘leaned down’ and administered the ‘coup de grace’ shots to the heads of both officials after disabling them with shots to the body. No medical team in the world could have saved either of them.”16
Both sides had their arguments. The defense claimed that, for Dan White, the “pot had boiled over.” White’s defense attorney, Douglas Schmidt, stated that “good people — fine people with fine backgrounds — simply don’t kill people in cold blood.”17 Schmidt also stated that White’s diet prior to the murders of Moscone and Milk may have played a part. Although they admitted there is no direct correlation between foods high in sugar content during bouts of depression and violent behavior, the defense implied that White’s diet of Twinkies and Coca-Cola prior to his actions in November had an integral effect on his thought processes and ability to reason.18
It seemed simple enough, an open-shut case. After five days of deliberation, the jury of seven women and five men, however, found Dan White guilty of two counts of voluntary manslaughter with a maximum penalty of eight years and the possibility of parole for good behavior. Compared to a situation of two counts of murder with the maximum penalty of death, White received but a minor and slight punishment . . . if it could even be called such.
About the verdict, Freitas commented, “I don’t think justice was carried out. I’m very, very disappointed. There were 2 charges of 1st degree murder and the evidence was there to support the verdict.”19 Mayor Dianne Feinstein simply added, “These were two murders.” Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver stated that “Dan White has gotten away with murder. It’s as simple as that”; Harvey Milk’s friend and successor Supervisor Harry Britt said, “It’s [the verdict] beyond immoral. It’s obscene. This is an insane jury.”20 Activist Cleve Jones rallied in the Castro that day stating, “He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. . . . I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”21 The general consensus of the public followed along the same lines—White laid a precedent of how to assassinate a public official and, in essence, get away with it.
The reaction from the gay community stood as antithesis to the hope that Harvey Milk spoke of, to the unity expressed only six months earlier, to the euphoria and sense that things were getting better. Some 5,000 demonstrators, many of whom were gay, participated in a violent protest that rocked San Francisco. Journalist Katy Butler described the scene:
The crowd of angry men and women, disgusted and frustrated with a system that they felt had betrayed them, rallied together. They chanted, echoing the mantra of a thousand voices, “Avenge Harvey Milk” and “All straight jury; no surprise; Dan White lives; And Harvey Milk dies.” These “White Night” riots resulted in more than 150 people injured and over $1 million in property damage.23
Reasons to the Madness
With such a display of rage, the innocence of the movement died; the gay rights euphoria under Harvey Milk and George Moscone was over. The Dan White trial verdict sent a clear message that all was not okay within San Francisco and the nation as a whole. It was a direct backlash to the advancements and progress the gay rights movement had made. Despite the unprecedented achievements, the appointments to places previously reserved for heterosexuals, and the incredible wave of bills passed and dangerous anti-gay initiatives defeated, America was still undergoing its culture wars. The verdict itself was not an anomaly, a random act against the gay community, but rather a culmination of events prior to it and an apparition of things to come.
Previously a fireman before he became an official, Dan White, a stark conservative, was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977—the same year as Harvey Milk. By his neighbors and constituents, White was seen as the all-American guy next door; he was a Vietnam veteran, a former police officer and fireman, campaigned on an anti-crime platform and even invited his neighbors over for the christening of his son. White’s supervisorial district was largely white, working middle-class section of San Francisco with a sizable minority population that “is hostile towards the growing homosexual community.”24 In his campaign brochure, White stated “I am not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups or radicals, social deviates, incorrigibles.”25 He made it clear that he thought of himself as the sole “defender of the home, the family and religious life against homosexuals, pot smokers and cynics.”26 White may have been the lone conservative on the board, but his voice was heard; he was the sole supervisor to vote against the ordinance forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation and against the closure of Polk and Castro Streets to traffic for the annual and traditional Halloween celebrations. White’s presence on the board showed a dichotomy and dualism within the dynamics of San Francisco as well as the nation. Where there was liberalism, there was conservatism; in the face of progress, there were still those who felt such changes were too much for the country and themselves to bear.
In the same year of White and Milk’s election, Dade County Commission in Florida passed a gay ordinance which prohibited the discrimination of gay men and lesbians. The achievement was short lived. Within six months, in the general election, the ordinance was overturned. Anti-gay speakers such as former Miss America, Anita Bryant representing an organization known as “Save Our Children,” spearheaded the fight to repeal the ordinance. Based on a message of hate and anger at the gay community, other similar ordinances were repealed in Wichita, Kansas; Eugene, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota.27 San Francisco may have been experiencing its renaissance and gay rights euphoria, but other places nationwide continued to show the signs of backlash and withdrawal from their devotion to the gay community.
The Briggs Initiative, or Proposition 6, on the California ballot was another sign that there was still a duel perception of the progress the nation was taking towards the gay community. The bill provided for the firing of all teachers who spoke of homosexuality or homosexual behavior in a positive light in the classroom. Although eventually defeated, its existence echoed the continued concern that America was losing its morality. With the social deviates gaining rights, some Americans believed that such progress was antithetical to the moral fiber and character of society. The culture wars continued.
The verdict of the Dan White trial did not come out of the blue, without warning or premonition. It was a culmination of the events occurring from the years before — the Briggs Initiative, the repeals in Florida of gay ordinances, and the politics of Dan White. These signs echoed in the verdict. District Attorney Freitas commented that the jurors were “struck by his wife [her testimony], his background, and the politics of the case.”28
There’s Hope Yet
The night of the “White Night” riots, Dianne Feinstein watched from the window of her ceremonial office on the second floor of City Hall. She looked down at the madness and anger and frustration the gay community faced and experienced. In response to the violence, she stated that there was no excuse for such actions but also noted that “tomorrow we’ll start to function again and sweep up the glass.”29 San Francisco and the nation moved on without two of its allies and supporters. Harvey Milk, feeling that it might be necessary to do so, made a final recording of his wishes in the event he were to be assassinated; he commented:
His message lingered in the minds of those he touched. The movement’s euphoria ended with his death, a culmination of the backlash from the achievements and progress made, but it was all worth it.
Anderson, Scott. “A City Grieves Good Men Slain,” The Advocate, 11 January 1979 in Chris Bull, ed., Witness to Revolution: The Advocate Reports on Gay and Lesbian Politics, 1967-1999. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 1999.
Anderson, Scott. “Moscone: A Passion for People,” The Advocate, 11 January, 1979 in Chris Bull, ed., Witness to Revolution: The Advocate Reports on Gay and Lesbian Politics, 1967-1999. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 1999.
“Briggs Is Shocked by Milk’s Slaying,” San Francisco Chronicle. 28 November 1978.
Butler, Katy. “A Bloody Protest at City Hall: Verdict Angers Gays,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 May 1979.
Carrol, Jerry. “George R. Moscone—A Quiet Leader,” The San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1978.
Crewdson, John M. “Harvey Milk Led Coast Homosexual-Rights Fight,” NewYork Times, 28 November 1978.
Draper, George. “Mayor Was Hit 4 Times,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1978.
“Friends Speak Out: Moscone Called Compassionate Political Leader,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1978.
Fosburgh, Lacey. “Stunned Crowd Gathers Near Scene of 2 Slayings,” New York Times, 28 November 1978.
Foss, Karen A. “The Logic of Folly in the Political Campaigns of Harvey Milk” in R. Jeffrey Ringer, ed., Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
Gregory-Lewis, Sasha. “Milk Gets Canned but Keeps on Running,” The Advocate, 7 April 1976 in Chris Bull, ed., Witness to Revolution: The Advocate Reports on Gay and Lesbian Politics, 1967-1999. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 1999.
Jennings, Duffy. “Dan White Jury Hears Final Arguments,” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 May 1979.
Jennings, Duffy. “Several Jurors Weep in Court,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 May 1979.
Kaiser, Charles. The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America Since World War II. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Kilduff, Marshall and Eugene Robinson. “City Officials Shocked by the Verdict,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 May 1979.
“Milk Left a Tape for Release if He Were Slain,” New York Times, 28 November 1978.
Newton, David E. Gay and Lesbian Rights. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1994.
Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
Turner, Wallace. “San Francisco Mayor Is Slain; City Supervisor also Killed; Ex-Official Gives Up to Police,” New York Times, 28 November 1978.
1 Sasha Gregory-Lewis, “Milk Gets Canned but Keeps on Running,” The Advocate, 7 April 1976 in Chris Bull, ed., Witness to Revolution: The Advocate Reports on Gay and Lesbian Politics, 1967-1999 (Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 1999) p 83.
2 John M. Crewdson, “Harvey Milk Led Coast Homosexual-Rights Fight,” NewYork Times, 28 November 1978.
3 Jim Foster quoted in Scott Anderson, “Moscone: A Passion for People,” The Advocate, 11 January, 1979.
4 Jerry Carrol, “George R. Moscone A Quiet Leader,” The San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1978.
5 Scott Anderson, “Moscone: A Passion for People,” The Advocate, 11 January, 1979.
6 Harvey Milk quoted in Karen A. Foss, “The Logic of Folly in the Political Campaigns of Harvey Milk” in R. Jeffrey Ringer, ed., Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality (New York: New York University Press, 1994). p 21.
7 Harvey Milk, “The Hope Speech,” in Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982). p 363.
8 Morty Manford quoted in Charles Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America Since World War II (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997). p 205.
9 George Draper, “Mayor Was Hit 4 Times,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1978.
10 Lacey Fosburgh, “Stunned Crowd Gathers Near Scene of 2 Slayings,” New York Times, 28 November 1978.
11 Dianne Feinstein quoted in Wallace Turner, “San Francisco Mayor Is Slain; City Supervisor also Killed; Ex-Official Gives Up to Police,” New York Times, 28 November 1978.
12 Eugene Robinson, “What the People Are Saying,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1978.
13 “Friends Speak Out: Moscone Called Compassionate Political Leader,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1978.
14 John Briggs, quoted in “Briggs Is Shocked by Milk’s Slaying,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1978.
15 Joseph Freitas, quoted in Scott Anderson, “A City Grieves Good Men Slain,” The Advocate, 11 January 1979.
16 Thomas Norman, quoted in Duffy Jennings, “Dan White Jury Hears Final Arguments.”
17 Douglas Schmidt, quoted in Duffy Jennings, “Several Jurors Weep in Court,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 May 1979.
18 Duffy Jennings, “Dan White Jury Hears Final Arguments,” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 May 1979.
19 Joseph Freitas, quoted in Duffy Jennings, “Several Jurors Weep in Court.”
20 Marshall Kilduff and Eugene Robinson, “City Officials Shocked by the Verdict,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 May 1979.
21 Cleve Jones, quoted in Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, p 327.
22 Katy Butler, “A Bloody Protest at City Hall: Verdict Angers Gays,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 May 1979.
23 David E. Newton, Gay and Lesbian Rights (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1994). p 39.
24 Wallace Turner, “San Francisco Mayor Is Slain; City Supervisor also Killed; Ex-Official Gives Up to Police.”
25 Dan White, quoted in Scott Anderson, “A City Grieves Good Men Slain.”
26 Wallace Turner, “San Francisco Mayor Is Slain; City Supervisor also Killed; Ex-Official Gives Up to Police.”
27 David E. Newton, Gay and Lesbian Rights, p 38.
28 Joseph Freitas, quoted in Duffy Jennings, “Several Jurors Weep in Court.”
29 Dianne Feinstain, quoted in Katy Butler, “A Bloody Protest at City Hall: Verdict Angers Gays.”
30 Harvey Milk quoted in “Milk Left a Tape for Release if He Were Slain,” New York Times, 28 November 1978.