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Forty Years from Jonestown: Lest We Forget

A little over a year ago, I joined a team of other journalists at San Francisco State University with a mission to understand how Jonestown could have happened, but along the way we realized the most important part of the history was the people themselves. Many of them were local, coming from all over the Bay Area to be part of the temple in San Francisco and in Redwood Valley.

They were, and some still are, our neighbors. If you take time to ask people around you, you’ll likely find at least a few impacted by the Peoples Temple in those years. Some were members that left the temple before the end, or relatives and friends of members, or teachers of the Temple kids…or survivors. Yes, there are some survivors and some of them still live right here. As the annual service is being held today at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, where hundreds of bodies were flown home and laid to rest, the least we can do is remember that these were and are real people who once had a dream.

This video is the result of some of our work and although some of it is still a little rough, I couldn’t let this day pass without honoring the people who shared their memories with us.

Forty years ago today, 918 people died in Guyana. They were people drawn to the promise of a better kind of world, one where race and class melts away and days and nights are spent doing good for others. Jim Jones emerged as a voice of equality and love, and he was believed…because people needed to believe that was possible.

He brought his interracial church on a pilgrimage from Indiana to Redwood Valley in Northern California, and later established Peoples Temple in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The story of what happened on Nov. 18, 1978 began long before that day and did not occur in a vacuum – the country’s struggle with race and scars of the Civil Rights Movement enabled the message Jones preached and he stepped into the void where our government failed. People flocked to him because he gave them hope, he cared for their elders and stood up for their rights. He promised them love, and then took their lives.

Although political and civil rights leaders applauded his efforts here in San Francisco, murmurs of a darker side to the temple began to emerge. A fateful article exposing temple secrets about beatings and money fraud was published in New West Magazine in August of 1977. Realizing his empire was at risk, Jones called on his followers to join him in Guyana where they had been building the agricultural community we now know as Jonestown. In that space, deep inside a remote jungle, the Peoples Temple spiraled toward the end.

It was not a “mass suicide,” it was murder. Those that followed Jones to Guyana were sleep deprived, undernourished and mentally and physically exhausted by the time Congressman Leo Ryan stepped foot in Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse and people being held against their will. They had no contact with the outside world from within the remote area where they lived. The only “information” they received while they lived there came directly from a rapidly-unraveling and drug-afflicted Jones. His paranoid rants boomed from loudspeakers throughout the camp, the air  filled with the sound of his voice and only his voice, warning them of the “dangers” at home for days and nights on end. When Ryan and others were killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Jones called his last “White Night” and encouraged the people there to drink poison and die in peace, telling them the government would soon be parachuting in and would never let them or their children live. He convinced many, but many also resisted and their choice was taken away – several temple members were held down and forced to drink or injected with syringes. Of the 918 people who died 40 years ago today, over 300 were children.

 

This story is one that should never be forgotten. It is a story of both human suffering and hope, and we cannot be so ignorant to believe it can never happen again.

To the amazing people who shared their time and memories with us, I wish you all every bit of peace you can find today – you’ll always have a place in my heart. Thank you!

 

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.