The death of a public figure

Ask Arthur Anything response

Harvey Milk.George Moscone
Harvey Milk and George Moscone

For Arthur’s Ask Arthur Anything feature – I wonder where he got THAT idea? – I asked him one or two questions. One was “Other than Nigel [his late husband], whose death did you most mourn? Also what death of a public figure most affected you?” I’m going to focus on the latter.

Arthur wrote: “Two deaths affected me well afterward: Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978 and Matthew Shepard’s murder twenty years later.” And it is true for me as well.

At the time, I thought Harvey Milk was the “other guy”, a city councilman killed along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by colleague Dan White. This happened only a short time after the Jonestown massacre, in which a large number of Bay Area residents died, traumatizing the community. Congressman Leo Ryan was also murdered in Guyana, tearfully announced by Moscone.

But by the time I saw the 2008 film Milk, I knew how important Harvey’s leadership was in LGBTQ+ rights. And that he went to school at the University at Albany.

I discussed Matthew Shepard in a comparison with Emmett Till, about whom I’ve written often. “Neither victim was a publicly known person; they weren’t activists in their respective civil rights struggles. Yet because Emmett’s mother had his battered body photographed in an open casket, because we saw the fence upon which Matthew was symbolically crucified, they were remembered nationally far beyond how the average murder victim is recalled.”

And yes, I protested in Albany against a certain ‘religious” Hate group, which came to town some years ago to complain about Laramie Project performances.

Dead musicians

Unlike John Lennon’s assassination, which hit me immediately, George Harrison’s death didn’t have the same instant impact. I knew he was dying. It was after 9/11; in fact, he was on the cover of TIME magazine in late November 2001, the first cover that wasn’t about 9/11 or Afghanistan in a couple of months. As I played George’s music, and later, when I heard the  Concert For George, his passing developed a greater resonance.

Sometimes, I’ll point out to Brian Ibbott, host of the podcast Coverville, which music stars had birthdays the following month that were divisible by five. I noted that David Bowie would have been 75 on January 8, 2022. Someone commented, “There hasn’t been a David Bowie cover story since the tribute in 2016. January 10 will also be the sixth anniversary of this sad day. So, please!”

Weird thing. I was recently watching that bit with Bowie and Bing Crosby on the latter’s holiday special. You know, the one with the fascinating dialogue. I was thinking, “Crosby died [on October 14, 1977] before that thing aired.” And suddenly, I realized, “Bowie’s dead too!” This is obviously something I knew intellectually since I had written about it more than once. Yet it took me by surprise and made me quite sad.

I’d count Prince, especially since my niece Rebecca Jade started singing with Sheila E. in 2017, and they cover so many of his songs. They both appeared in the televised Let’s Go Crazy — An All-Star Grammy Salute 2020, with Sheila as a musical director.


The person, though, whose death has hit me more at a later date is Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember when he died in 1968. However, I’ve learned SO much more about him subsequently. I’ve tried to make a point in the past decade to write about him every year around the dates of his birth (January 15) and death (April 4).

This is particularly true since certain people have hijacked his message into simplistic tropes. I wrote in 2013, What Would Martin Do, which is pretty representational of what I’ve been going for.

There are many others. For instance, several late entertainers and athletes I’ve admired, from Ella Fitzgerald to Hank Aaron, who had to endure Jim Crow.

Coincidentally, the very same day Arthur debuted the aforementioned post, Kelly shared For Carrie,  noting Carrie Fisher, gone five years. It’s worth checking out.

Woe, weeping: San Francisco, November 1978

Harvey Milk, the subject of a 2008 film starring Sean Penn , graduated from New York State College for Teachers in Albany in 1951.

The events of November 1978 were terribly difficult for the city of San Francisco.

The The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ… was “a new religious movement founded in 1955 by Jim Jones” in Indianapolis, IN. “Jones used the Peoples Temple to spread a message that combined elements of Christianity with communist and socialist ideas, as well as an emphasis on racial equality.” The Peoples Temple had moved a few times, relocating to San Francisco in the early 1970s.

In 1974, the Peoples Temple rented land in Guyana and “created the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, or, informally, ‘Jonestown.’ It had as few as 50 residents in early 1977.” After Jim Jones left for Guyana in 1978, under increasing media scrutiny, he encouraged Temple members to follow him there.

“On November 17, 1978, Leo Ryan, a U.S. Congressman from the San Francisco area investigating claims of abuse within the Peoples Temple, visited Jonestown. During Ryan’s visit, a number of Temple members expressed a desire to leave with him, and, on November 18, they accompanied Ryan to the local airstrip.”

They were intercepted by “self-styled Temple security guards who opened fire on the group,” killing Ryan, NBC News journalist Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown (who filmed the shooters), San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson and defecting Temple member Patricia Parks. “The murder of Congressman Ryan was the first and only murder of a Congressman in the line of duty in the history of the United States.”

That evening, in Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered his congregation to drink a concoction of cyanide-laced, grape-flavored Flavor Aid . In all, 918 people died, including 276 children, mostly from the Bay Area. I remember an ashen Mayor George Moscone announce Rep. Ryan’s death, and soon thereafter, the massacre.

Then, on November 27, Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed in City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White. “White was angry that Moscone had refused to reappoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors, from which he had just resigned, and that Milk had lobbied heavily against his reappointment.”

I watched then-Board President Dianne Feinstein weep as she announced the murders of Moscone and Milk, almost certainly the most prominent gay politician in the United States of that time.

Harvey Milk, the subject of a 2008 film starring Sean Penn , graduated from New York State College for Teachers in Albany in 1951, the predecessor of my alma mater, UAlbany. Feinstein became the first female mayor of San Francisco and eventually U.S. Senator for California.

Some believe the two events are even more related, because some politicians gave early support to the charismatic Jones, including Moscone, Milk, governor Jerry Brown and state Assembly leader Willie Brown (no relation).

Most of this I remembered reasonably well, given the fact that it took place 40 years ago. One piece I did not know was that Jackie Speier , a congressional staffer for Ryan, was shot five times at the Guyana airstrip and waited 22 hours before help arrived. She survived and now is a member of Congress representing much of the district that Ryan, her mentor, served.

For ABC Wednesday

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