Bring Out The “Black Dimensions” Of Peoples Temple

by James Lance Taylor

As a student and teacher of black politics and researcher of what can properly be called “Peoples Temple Studies,” thanks to the work of a growing scholarly literature, I struggle to understand not only its interracial commitments and ideology, but also its explicitly “black dimensions.” Like other important aspects of the Peoples Temple movement, its overarching racial dimensions have been overshadowed by the way it all ended. A few journalists and academic studies have accounted for it, but more than three decades of sensationalist media reportage has prevented a common knowledge among Americans, people abroad, and most of all, average black Americans, that Peoples Temple was as much a “black movement” as the Harlem Renaissance, black labor struggles, the civil rights movement, the earliest stages of Black Power, and modern-day Hip Hop.

Most “black movements” have been interracial. One of the most famous, the Abolitionist movement, had a few white radicals – like William Lloyd Garrison, Garrett Smith, and John Brown – who were the faces of it. Harper’s Ferry was no Jonestown, but it is etched in memory and in history, because its noble cause of freeing enslaved black people was seen beyond its violent end on October 16, 1859. This is how I am thinking about Peoples Temple. I believe there is still redemption in Peoples Temple; in its survivors; in its original intentions.

No outsiders took its leadership’s god-socialism seriously. Even fewer understood anything at all until the media shaped its narrative in the whirlwind of 1978 and 1979, ensuring that its truth shall never be told. But unless and until those who are alive bring out this aspect of Peoples Temple, as Rebecca Moore and her colleagues have done in their recent book, Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, there is little more than annual gatherings of redemption-seeking pain, and November 1978. As an African American boy in Long Island, whose mother occasionally attended Daddy Grace’s church in Harlem in the 1940s, and whose whole life has been shaped by a thirst for understanding the power of African American religion once had to change this society, as Dr. King and Malcolm X demonstrated, I believe that Peoples Temple deserves a “second look.” For decades after his death, Malcolm X was largely trivialized, misunderstood, and hated by all but a few, until his late wife Betty Shabbazz demanded that they “bring back my husband.” By this she meant, recover Malcolm X’s commitments and original intentions and snatch him from the grips of those who distorted them. Since then, two generations of young people have taken Malcolm X seriously and have rejected media sensationalism depicting him as a hate teacher and racist.

I have talked to hundreds of students, friends, and colleagues, unfamiliar with the real life of Peoples Temple, about the likes of Archie Ijames and William “Leo” Wade, who were among the Temple’s earliest African American recruits in Indiana; about Jim Cobb and his original protests concerning the unredemptive “white-over-black” leadership and operational structure of Peoples Temple that set things off in Ukiah; about Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, Willie Brown, Mervin Dymally,  Huey Newton and Angela Davis’ connections; about its “Black Power” aura and raised fists; about Deanna Wilkinson, and the haunting beauty of her singing the Earth, Wind, and Fire song before Ryan and his media entourage – my heart breaks every time I see her singing – in the last hours of her life; about Christine Miller’s final appeal, and Hyacinth Thrash’s survival among a few others. And how 70 percent of those bodies – and 80 percent of those in the U.S. prior – were the bodies of black people, resting between dedications to Cuffy, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Jane Pittman.

I have attended the Evergreen memorials since 2008, including the most recent in 2011. I listened, painfully, to Jynona Norwood declare, “They took Dr. King’s Dream, and turned it into a weapon of mass destruction!” In 2011, I took my two sons, 5 and 3, and afterwards, watched Grace Stoen play with them for a brief moment in Jordan Vilchez’s backyard.

In 2008, I was honored to get to know William “Leo” Wade who shared his experience – mostly in Indiana, Ukiah and Los Angeles – in Peoples Temple. I recently learned a bit about him from the FBI’s release of Peoples Temple files, including the notation that the Temple listed him as a “hostile.” After the tragedy, he became homeless in the Tenderloin. In 1980, he joined Howard Thurman’s Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples in Russian Hill which preceded Peoples Temple in its interracialist commitments. I took him to Evergreen for the memorial in 2009, and no one said a word to him or seemed to recognize him.

Leo Wade died earlier this year, alone, shoeless, and mostly unnoticed but for a small group of friends from Fellowship church. Experiencing his last days, I have come to realize that, unless the life and work of Peoples Temple, and the tragedy of Jonestown, are clearly understood today in line with the beautiful and tragic history of the black experience and struggle, then its black majority is victimized yet again; left invisible, relegated to mere footnotes in the telling of the madness of its white leadership.

The black dimension of Peoples Temple must be told. It must be brought out of the footnotes of the Peoples Temple narrative, and into the main text. It is the one dimension, I believe, that has not been fully explained from a black perspective. It is the one dimension that can recover Peoples Temple in history, as Betty Shabbazz and Malcolm X’s supporters have redeemed him.

(James Lance Taylor is Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco, teaches African American Studies at UC Berkeley, and is author of the new book, Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama (2011). The working title of his current research and next book is Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and Black America. He can be reached at taylorj@usfca.edu.)

Last modified on December 3rd, 2013.
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