Conversation: ‘Milk’s’ Cleve Jones

BY Arts Desk  December 19, 2008 at 1:59 PM EST

The new film, “Milk,” by director Gus Van Sant tells the story of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay elected official in the United States as a member of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors. Less than a year later, he was assassinated in his City Hall office along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Dan White, a former city supervisor, shot Milk five times.

“Harvey was one of those extraordinary personalities that people need to know about, primarily because of his ordinariness. He really was an ordinary man,” former associate and gay activist Cleve Jones said in an interview this week.

Born in 1930, Milk left New York for San Francisco in 1972. He and his partner, Scott, opened a camera store in a struggling San Francisco neighborhood, the Castro, which was becoming the epicenter of the city’s thriving gay community. Milk was soon referred to as “the mayor of Castro Street.”

One of Milk’s greatest achievements was a campaign in 1978 to defeat Proposition 6 in California. Also known as the Briggs Initiative after California legislator John Briggs, Proposition 6 aimed to ban and fire homosexual teachers and any public school employee who supported gay rights. The proposition lost by more than one million votes.

Jones was a witness to it all and remains an activist. He became a key organizer for Milk in the 1970s, mobilizing thousands with little more than pay phones and staple guns.
Cleve Jones and Emile Hirsch; photo courtesy of Focus Features LLC. All rights reserved.
“It was really pretty amazing; we could turn thousands of people out in a very short time,” said Jones, adding, “Harvey had a real gift for involving young people, and he was a wonderful mentor to many young people, gay and straight alike.”

In 1985, Jones came up with idea of the AIDS Quilt. Two years later, the memorial, with 1,920 panels, was spread across the National Mall for the first time. Jones continues to speak at colleges across the United States. Speaking with Jeffrey Brown, Jones credits Milk with training him in the art and power of public speaking and political participation.

Striving to keep Milk’s memory alive, Jones was central to getting the film made. He linked writer Dustin Lance Black with director Gus Van Sant, and acted as historical consultant to the film. Sean Penn stars as the ebullient Milk, and an impassioned Emile Hirsch as Jones himself. “Milk” is now playing in theaters across the country.

Jeffrey Brown talked to Cleve Jones earlier this week. Jones spoke via cell phone from California:

Here is a clip from “Milk” featuring Hirsch as Jones and Penn as Milk:

Editor’s note: There is a wealth of information about Harvey Milk available from various PBS programs and stations. Just go to PBS.org.