Yesterday, November 18, 1978, marked the 45th anniversary of the mass murder and suicide of more than 900 people at the “Jonestown Agricultural Project” in Guyana. The victims, many of whom were elderly men, women, and children, belonged to The People’s Temple and had moved to the South American country under the direction of Rev. Jim Jones (1931-1978), the pastor.
At the end of a fact-finding visit by Congressman Leo Ryan of California’s 11th congressional district, which included San Francisco where the temple was based, Jones’ security guards assassinated Ryan. The congressman had gone to Jonestown in response to accusations of abuse and kidnapping by a group of concerned relatives. Fearing the response to the assassination, Jones ordered the “revolutionary suicide” of all temple members by forcing them to take a cyanide-laced fruit drink infamously, if incorrectly, identified as Cool Aid.
“If we can’t live in peace, then let us die in peace. We’ve been so betrayed. We’ve been so terribly betrayed.”Rev. Jim Jones, November 18, 1978
Jones was an odd but charismatic Pentecostal preacher from Indiana who moved his church to California in 1965, where he eventually shed Pentecostalism in favor of a more radical, politically-conscious version of Christianity influenced by liberation theology. He called it “Apostolic socialism.” Since he believed Christianity had been corrupted (e.g., “the Bible is a paper idol!”), he referred to his followers not as Christians but communists. In his final address to temple members in Guyana, he even mentioned the possibility of Russia saving them from the US government but concluded that it was “too late” and so they must, in effect, kill themselves to avoid even greater pain.
And they did kill themselves. To be sure, some had to be forced at gunpoint, but many willfully committed suicide, mothers even poisoning their own children as the children screamed. So, what makes a person do that? What makes someone follow orders like that? Again, some are bullied. There is no way to tell how many, although there is an exchange in the audio recording of those final moments between Jones and a woman identified as “Christine” in which Christine tries to reason with him, suggesting that there must be a way out, even finding the “code” to be airlifted out of Guyana to Russia. Her desperation is controlled even as he rebuffs her in her delusion. Still, it is clear she does not want to die. “As long as there’s life, there’s hope,” she says.
Unfortunately, the social, economic, and racial issues Jones capitalized on are still with us. In fact, they have gotten worse. Though he was a paranoid megalomaniac with a messiah complex, referring to himself as a divinely-inspired, “socialist God,” he spoke to disenfranchised people, mainly blacks from Oakland and San Francisco, in a way that gave them hope for a better future. In true Marxist fashion, he dangled before them a vision of utopia on earth, one he would lead them to like a revolutionary Moses.
That utopia never materialized, because it was built on division, separation, and secrecy as well as fanatical control. The move to Guyana likely was motivated by Jones’ need to escape possible arrest regarding sexual offenses and fraud in California. He also pointed out to temple members that the twenty or so people who had tried to escape with Congressman Ryan were “mostly white.” But he was determined to stand with the people and go to his death with them. After all, he claimed, “Are we [not] black, proud, and socialist?”
Much has been written about the horror of that day, both the years leading up to it and its aftermath (cf., “Jonestown,” “Leo Ryan: How Did His Trip to Jonestown Come Together, and Why?“). Some researchers have even speculated about Soviet and Chinese mind control experiments, CIA involvement, and trials of mass extermination. That it is also a portrait of human pathology and evil cannot be denied. Forty-five years later, the screams of the innocent still cry out from the jungle.
Image credits: feature by Jonestown Institute at https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12374156; Jones and Williams by Nancy Wong, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. For quotes, see “Jim Jones” in Wikipedia. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”