As the 20th century was drawing to a close, Time magazine set to work preparing its mother-of-all-lists: The Time 100 Persons of the Century. Quite an undertaking, especially when you consider how many tens of billions of people lived and died during that momentous century. How to whittle the list down to a mere one hundred? Imagine the screaming matches in the editorial meetings as that deadline neared! “How can you not include [blank]?!” “Are you out of your mind? [Blank] is worth fifty of [blank]!” “OK, you can have [blank] or [blank] – but not both.” I’m sure it wasn’t as polite as all that.
In the end, The 100 were chosen. This was not a list of the most popular or most beautiful or most loved (although many were one or more of those). The filter used to sift the 20th century was influence. These folks were named for the impact they had on the human race in the past hundred years – “for better or worse”. Given the explosive growth of mass media in that century, many of the names on the list enjoy a renown without borders. Some inhabit the mono-moniker realm: Mandela. Churchill. Gandhi. Hitler. Freud. Ali. Diana. Lindbergh. Pele. Sakharov. Che. MLK. FDR. A few founded companies that became global brands, giving them a more dynamic form of immortality: Ford. Disney. Chanel. Albert Einstein landed on the cover, first among equals – and you don’t have to be Einstein to understand… oh, never mind.
Maybe you’re surprised to learn that little more than half of the list is comprised of Americans. That may seem too high or too low, depending on where you stand. The “made in America” label was sewn into far less than 5% of the planetary population during the timeframe. But this country did have an outsized impact on the condition of the human race in the 1900s, in almost every way. For better and worse.
The list was released not all at once, but in flights across five issues of Time in 1998 and 1999. Each issue offered a different group of The 100 including “Artists & Entertainers”, “Builders & Titans”, “Scientists & Thinkers”. (There’s a link at the end of this post to the entire list.) The final portion of The 100 appeared in the Time issue dated June 14, 1999. “Heroes & Icons” includes some of the most inspiring and courageous people our species has yet produced. Anne Frank. Rosa Parks. Helen Keller. Jackie Robinson. Harvey Milk. Mother Ter––
Seems a safe bet that most earthlings, and (sadly) most Americans would see that name on the list and have no idea who Harvey Milk was. Of course, most Americans can’t name the current Vice President (Joe Biden) or the inventor of the internet (Al Gore)… but that’s cold comfort. Harvey Milk is a hero of the gay rights movement (and of the larger struggle for civil rights) in America and around the world. He is in the upper echelon of prominence in the lgbt pantheon. In 1977 Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in California, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (city council). In 1978 he was assassinated in City Hall alongside Mayor George Moscone by a deranged ex-Supervisor with a gun. But Harvey (he is one of those ‘one-namers’ to the gay community) had made his mark long before reaching SF City Hall. Here is an excellent bio from The Milk Foundation, if you’d like to know more about this man and his life so powerfully lived. I can also recommend the excellent biography by Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street (which was made into the Academy Awarded film, Milk with Sean Penn).
Today – May 22nd – is Harvey Milk Day celebrating the man and his life on his birthday. This was established by the California Legislature in 2009 as a ‘day of special significance’ for public schools, with appropriate focus in the curriculum to insure that kids learn about this important man and his place in their own history. As you can imagine, this sets certain folks’ hair on fire… but that’s all the ink I’ll waste on them here. Harvey would be 84 years old today.
In a special acknowledgment of Harvey Milk’s place in our history, the United States Post Office has issued a commemorative stamp – to be officially dedicated in a ceremony at the White House today. It’s a very proud moment for all of us, gay and straight, who know what a powerful and positive role model this man was for his generation, and all those who followed. I was a 16-year-old kid in the closet in Connecticut in 1978. If I was even aware of the events unfolding in faraway San Francisco, I don’t recall any reaction I may have had.
Looking back now, it’s so easy to forget the context of those times. Harvey Milk was killed just ten years after MLK and RFK were gunned down. That’s less time than has passed for us since 9/11. The Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the gay pride movement were then even more recent. And it is haunting to realize that Harvey lived, and died, in a time just a few years before the onslaught of AIDS… It’s impossible not to indulge the What if? daydreams. What if Harvey had not been murdered? How would he have continued to change the world? It’s impossible not to hear the fury of his voice cracking the marble foundations in Washington – demanding the action and the funding and the leadership that Reagan’s government withheld. Others rose to take up that mantle, courageously and nobly. But there is no doubt that the bullets fired in 1978 condemned more than two good people to death. Keep that in mind the next time you see or hear some imbecile talking about “2nd Amendment solutions”. This nation has paid a hideously high price for our unwillingness to separate dangerously unstable people from their guns.
As President Obama remarked last summer at the 50th anniversary of MLK’s March on Washington and the civil rights struggle: “The arc of the universe may bend toward justice – but it doesn’t bend on its own.” Harvey Milk, as have others before him and since, reached up and grabbed hold of the arc of the universe – and pulled on it with all his might to bend it a little further toward justice. He succeeded. And as we celebrate that success we should stop looking around to see who the next leader will be, and look within. That was Harvey’s real message. And that is why those who would put us all back in the closet may win a battle here and there – but they have already lost the war. Thank you, Harvey.
And how cool is this? The White House made a birthday cake for Harvey today. He would have loved that!
The End (so far)