Harvey Milk is not a name many students recognize, but they should. This man is one of the great leaders in the American Civil Rights History, particularly for the gay community. Wednesday May 22 is Harvey Milk Day. It's not as well known as Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday or President's Day or even Memorial Day, but it's an opportunity to stop for a minute and recognize the first openly gay man elected to public office (in 1977) and discuss with your class what that means exactly. Why is this important? Why should we care?
Harvey Milk Day can be used as a diving board for a conversation about the concept of today's American "universe of obligation," a concept often used in Facing History classrooms. Who do we believe the United States wants to protect? Where do these ideas of "us" and "them" come from in society?
Here's how you can celebrate Harvey Milk Day and create a dialogue at the same time.
- Serve milk as a fun ice-breaker and ask if anyone has every heard of Harvey Milk.
- For the students who haven't heard of him, pass out a summary. (Click here for a brief bio from the Harvey Milk Day website.)
- After students have read the summary, ask them to share out some observations - what stood out and why? Why would we have a day for him?
- Ask students to pair up and create a perceived American "universe of obligation" about today's world in a drawn circle on a piece of paper. In groups, students should place who the United States cares about the most in the middle and least on the outer edges (remind the class this is not about who we should care about). If students wish, they may put groups completely outside the circle for those they believe are completely ignored.
- Pick a couple groups to share out their finished product - ask the rest of the class for feedback. Agree? Disagree? Why?
- Then, pass out a transcript of Harvey Milk's "Hope" Speech. This is quite long, so feel free to use excerpts or you can even cut it up and pass out each piece to a different small group. Click here for the full transcript. (It is at the bottom where it says "read the complete speech.")
- Pose this question, "How did Harvey Milk propose changing America's universe of obligation?" They should comment on having community leaders and politicians who represent the gay community as well as the African American community in order to change stereotypes.
- Ask students if they believe this is still an issue today? How far have we come from 1978? They may look back at their own US universe of obligation to answer that question.
- Lastly, end on a positive note - bring up Jason Collins and his recent coming-out in the NBA. What does the future hold for the LGBT community? Click here for the Sports Illustrated article by/about Collins.
Far too often, communities who struggle for equality are treated as separate entities rather than united in a broad fight for civil rights and that weakens their fight. I think that one of the most powerful things about Harvey Milk is his persistence for unity and to recognize the struggle in the gay community as the same as others. He said it best with "you have to give people hope", so let's take a moment to celebrate his day with hope!
To further explore teaching the universe of obligation, click here.
Facing History teachers can borrow the film, The Times of Harvey Milk, by clicking here.