29 November 2018

SW Harvey Milk Street

Recently, while driving to work through downtown Portland, I noticed that one of the streets I crossed every day was "SW Harvey Milk Street".  I used to come downtown pretty often and I didn't remember ever seeing a street named for Harvey Milk before, so it aroused my curiosity.

It turns out that the city council voted for the change less than six months ago, renaming what had been SW Stark Street, a 13-block stretch extending west from the Willamette river to Burnside Street.  The new street signs went up even more recently.  Harvey Milk had no actual connection with the area, nor with Portland in general, but SW Stark Street was a center of gay culture in earlier days, and for some time a local citizens' group had been pushing for the change.  There was no real opposition; the only criticism came from those who would have preferred to honor a more local gay activist.

As it happens, the 40th anniversary of Milk's assassination was just two days ago.  Milk was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first openly-gay elected official in California, at a time when the position of gay people even in San Francisco was precarious at best -- this was the time of Anita Bryant, the Briggs initiative, and the rise of the Moral Majority.  Though a latecomer to political activism and sometimes at odds with the city's more established gay political figures, Milk made use of his office to pass a gay civil rights ordinance and to rally and organize people for the long struggle against bigotry that lay ahead.

He was assassinated by Dan White, a former fellow Supervisor who was (by San Francisco standards) relatively religious and conservative, and had clashed with Milk several times.  After a failed business venture, White entered City Hall with a gun and begged Mayor George Moscone to reinstate him as a Supervisor.  When Moscone refused, White shot him, then went to his old adversary's office and murdered him as well.

I was living in the Bay Area at the time and I still remember the announcement of these shocking events by a visibly-shaken Supervisor Dianne Feinstein (who succeeded Moscone as Mayor and went on to become the national figure she is today).  The assassination brought the deep cultural divides of the time to the surface, with police officers openly wearing "Free Dan White" shirts and gays later rioting over White's relatively light sentence.

I wonder if Milk, living at the time he did, could have anticipated the success of the movement he helped foster, with gay marriage now a reality in most of North and South America and western Europe, and boycotts forcing entire states to back down from efforts to restore discrimination.  Perhaps he did.  To devote so much effort to the struggle, he must have been an optimist on some level.

The street's previous name honors Benjamin Stark, a local landowner who briefly served Oregon as a Senator during the Civil War era; like many people at the time, he was pro-slavery.  Milk is a far more worthy figure.  SE Stark Street, the much longer section of the street east of the river, still keeps the old name.  For it, too, perhaps the city council should eventually choose a better one.


Blogger Harry Hamid said...

I guess that's a good thing. I mean, every city I know of has their own gay rights figures who have been part of the struggle for 40 years. I can think of 2 or 3 people here in Houston who deserve to have a street named after them.

Of course, every city also had African-American figures who struggled, and yet they still have MLK Blvdss. So maybe Milk's the right one.

Even if, much like many towns' MILK Blvd., it's only PART of the length of the street.

29 November, 2018 05:01  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Sounds to me like they should change the name of the entire street to honour Harvey Milk!

29 November, 2018 06:23  
Anonymous Sam240 said...

King County, in Washington, was originally named after slave-owning Vice-President-elect William Rufus King. Eventually, people in the Seattle area decided that he should not be honored with the name of a county.

Therefore, in 2005, King County was officially renamed King County, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Perhaps Stark Street could be renamed for either Revolutionary War General John Stark or pioneering conductor Ethel Stark, both of whom appear worthy of honor.

29 November, 2018 14:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I can kind of see why they didn't rename the eastern part. It runs for miles and miles east, largely residential, right through Portland and into Gresham, which is an adjacent and more conservative city (much smaller than Portland but too big to be considered just a suburb). They'd have had to either get Gresham to rename their section as well, or have the street suddenly change its name at an intercity border which is otherwise unnoticeable when you drive across it.

Declaring the street to commemorate a different Stark wouldn't solve the problem of giving Harvey Milk more prominence. Perhaps astronomers can rename the Milky Way galaxy as the Milky Way galaxy in his honor.

29 November, 2018 16:53  
Anonymous NickM said...

I think the local figure thing is important. And it would stagger me if Portland didn't have a suitable candidate.

As to MLK Blvds... Well, the only one I know is in central Atlanta (it runs very close to MLK's church). Oddly enough it is/was a marching street for the KKK from before MLK's day (so many TLAs!) though the last I heard (late '90s) the last time they marched there was fewer than a dozen not so Grand Wizards and they were given a police escort for their own safety because South Atlanta is and was very black. Of course that's why the KKK in their days of "glory" when they could summon (tens of?) thousands chose to march there.

Of course there is also...


30 November, 2018 05:49  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I didn't know much about him until that movie came out about him.

30 November, 2018 12:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: Not sure if they have anyone prominent who's already dead (a requirement for naming a street after someone). Oregon has a reputation for being very liberal, but I'm not sure how long it's been that way.

Mary: After forty years, many people probably don't. I'm glad there was a movie.

01 December, 2018 02:56  
Anonymous NickM said...

Apparently there are moves afoot to perhaps name a street in DC "Kashoggi Way". It is the street the Saudi Embassy is on.

01 December, 2018 06:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The aim there seems to be more pwning the Saudis than honoring Khashoggi, but it's probably what he would have wanted.

01 December, 2018 09:01  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I remember when Milk got killed, it was big news. Never was not sure what happened to his killer though. Can't even remember the year actually. But, that's cool that they named the street after him, and PDX is just a tad north of the Bay Area anywayz, and a fairly liberated city ... doubt they would do something like that in Dallas ... Dallas would more likely name a street after some corporation or bank ... geeez

02 December, 2018 06:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Dan White was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, due in part to the infamous "twinkie defense". He served only five years in prison, but committed suicide shortly after being released.

02 December, 2018 09:16  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

Dan White was an ex-policeman who had campaigned for the death penalty while a supervisor. He arranged to be arrested by a friend of his, who took his statement in a manner which deliberately made it useless in court. I believe he ended up serving only three years. My opinion: Dan White did not commit suicide. What he knew about the SF police letting him off was so damaging that shortly after he returned to San Francisco, the police had him killed. Never be able to prove it, but that's what I believe. Dan White, and the concurrent John Wayne Gacy case, are what convinced me that there are appropriate cases for the death penalty.

Harvey Milk was my supervisor when I lived in San Francisco. I must admit that I didn't vote for him because his campaign was so aimed toward gays that I didn't think he cared about representing anyone else. But he turned out to be a great supervisor, and I would have happily voted for him if he had a chance to run again.

02 December, 2018 09:57  

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