Jimmy Carter and Harvey Milk: On the Campaign Trail and Beyond

Today’s post is written by Daria Labinsky, an Archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

June 25 marks the fortieth anniversary of gay rights activist and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk’s Gay Freedom Day speech, sometimes called the “Hope” speech, in which he called on President Jimmy Carter to speak out against Proposition 6, an anti-gay measure on the California state election ballot. Carter and Milk had actually met two years earlier, when Milk shook Carter’s hand while the man from Plains was campaigning for President.

An image of Harvey Milk and Jimmy Carter shaking hands.
Source: Used by permission from the Harvey Milk Foundation, http://milkfoundation.org/

On May 21, 1976, Carter was giving a fund-raising campaign speech at the Hilton hotel in San Francisco, California. The photographer who shot the image, Donald Eckert, speculated that “Carter and his aides had no idea who Harvey was at the time. (Milk) had scraped together the $100 or so for the fund-raising dinner so he could meet Carter.”[1]

Schedule
Schedule, May 21, 1976; Schedules [1] (NAID 1117327); Container 376, Betty Rainwater’s Press Office Subject Files; 1976 Campaign Press Office; Records of the 1976 Campaign Committee to Elect Jimmy Carter, 1976-1976; Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, GA.
The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library has a recording of Carter’s speech from that night, which doesn’t mention gay rights.[2] However, Carter spoke out in support of gay rights at the news conference he held just before the fund raiser, saying he would sign New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug’s Equality Act amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act if it reached his Presidential desk. “I will certainly sign it, because I don’t think it’s right to single out homosexuals for special abuse or special harassment,” he said.

A press release sent out a few days later cited other examples of Carter’s public support for gay rights.

Press Release, May 23, 1976; Gay Rights (NAID 563833); Container 34, Sam Bleicher’s Subject Files; Issues Office, Records of the 1976 Campaign Committee to Elect Jimmy Carter, 1976-1976; Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, GA.

In September Harvey Milk endorsed Carter’s Presidential bid in a Bay Area Reporter column titled, “‘Uncertainty’ of Carter or the ‘Certainty’ of Ford.” He was not enthusiastic about either candidate, but wrote, “I’ll take the ‘uncertainty’ of the man who believes that the government has no business in a person’s bedroom.”[3]

Two years later he gave the Gay Freedom Day speech that called out Carter for not working hard enough for gay rights. Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative for its sponsor, state legislator John Briggs, would have banned gay and lesbian individuals from working in the California public school system.

“I’m tired of the silence from the White House,” Milk said, in his June 25, 1978, speech. “There are some 15-20 million lesbians and gay men in this nation listening, and listening very carefully. Jimmy Carter, when are you going to talk about their rights? … When you do speak out, then and only then, will some 20 million gays and lesbians be able to say that Jimmy Carter is our president too!”[4]

Milk sent a copy of the speech and a letter to President Carter on June 28 and also sent one to his assistant, Margaret “Midge” Costanza.

Milk_Costanza.jpg
Milk to Costanza, June 28, 1978; Gay Rights–Harvey Milk Speech and Letter (NAID 152903); Container 4, Margaret Costanza’s Subject Files; Office of Public Liaison; Records of Office of Assistant for Public Liaison, 1977-1981; Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, GA.

Costanza’s aide, Marc Rosen, forwarded it to her with the note, “Midge: This is a note worth reading.” Costanza wrote back to Milk and said the speech was “one of the best defenses for human rights that I have read or heard in a good while.”

Costanza_Milk
Costanza to Milk, July 30, 1978; Gay Rights–Harvey Milk Speech and Letter (NAID 152903); Container 4, Margaret Costanza’s Subject Files; Office of Public Liaison; Records of Office of Assistant for Public Liaison, 1977-1981; Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, GA.

 

While stumping for Democrats in California on November 3, 1978, Carter said, “As long as I am in the White House, our Nation will always be identified as the Nation that will insist and fight for basic human rights.” At the very end of his speech, seemingly apropos of nothing, he added, “I also want to ask everybody to vote against Proposition 6.”[5]

Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were among the many politicians who opposed Proposition 6, which was defeated at the polls on November 7, 1978.

For more on President Carter’s record on gay rights, see the following digitized documents from the Jimmy Carter Library:

“Civil Service Reform and Gay Rights,” 2/27/78

“Eizenstat Wexler Memo Re National Gay Task Force Questionnaire,” 12/20/79


The National Archives holds extensive records created or received by the U.S. Government on issues of sexual identity and rights.  To learn more visit NARA’s web page dedicated to LGBTQ Pride Month as well as NARA’s Tumblr Discovering LGBTQ History.


Footnotes

[1]  Uncle Donald’s Castro Street. https://thecastro.net/milk/milk.html, retrieved June 19, 2018.

[2]  “Jimmy Carter Speaking at a Fund Raiser in San Francisco, California,” May 22 (erroneous date), 1976 (NAID 5756640); Container 2, Jimmy Carter’s Audio Visual Speech Files; Records of the 1976 Campaign Committee to Elect Jimmy Carter, 1976-1976; Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, GA.

[3] “ ‘Uncertainty’ of Carter or the ‘Certainty’ of Ford,” Bay Area Reporter, September 2, 1976; reprinted in An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings  (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013), pp. 134-137.

[4] Speech at Gay Freedom Day, June 25, 1978, San Francisco, p. 6; Gay Rights–Harvey Milk Speech and Letter (NAID 152903); Container 4, Margaret Costanza’s Subject Files; Office of Public Liaison; Records of Office of Assistant for Public Liaison, 1977-1981; Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, GA.

[5] “Sacramento, California: Remarks at a ‘Get Out the Vote’ Rally, November 3, 1978.” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=30111, retrieved June 19, 2018.

 

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