Carlton B. Goodlett: Champion of the People?

by James Lance Taylor

Hagiographic biographies focusing on the life and work of publisher and physician Carlton B. Goodlett (1914-1997) identify him as the biggest of the “big Negroes” in San Francisco and the state of California. For several decades beginning in 1945, Goodlett was, and remains, regarded as one “of the most influential civil rights activists in San Francisco history.” A doctor, a publisher, and a political power broker, he was also a shrewd businessman who opposed capitalism’s excesses.

Goodlett attended college at Howard University, where he walked the halls among towering African American intellectuals like Raphe Bunche, Alain Locke, Mordecai Johnson, Howard Thurman, and E. Franklin Frazier. He earned a Ph.D. in child psychology from UC Berkeley at the age of 23 and became a pediatrician, setting up his practice in the Fillmore. He would also act as the personal physician to a number of well-known figures, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and – later – Jim Jones.
Carlton Goodlett was something of a renaissance man, leading integrationist organizations like the NAACP, the nationalist National Black United Fund, the Marxist-oriented World Peace Council, and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehouseman’s Union, which was affiliated with the Communist Party USA. He traveled to places like Helsinki, Stockholm, and the Soviet Union, receiving tributes from radical organizations committed to egalitarian commitments to social justice. His activism included local efforts, as when he convinced Rev. Fred Haynes III of Third Baptist Church to welcome Du Bois and Robeson, who were targets of red-baiting reactionaries, when no other churches or organizations would; and later, when he was arrested for demanding Black Studies at San Francisco State University during student protests in 1968.

He also challenged the Democratic Party establishment by running for California Governor, and while he wasn’t elected, he eventually became a major power broker in the local and national Democratic Party, playing key roles in the careers of Willie Brown, Ron Dellums, Phil and John Burton, and Mervyn Dymally. Quite frankly, Carlton B. Goodlett was the most influential black man in San Francisco for nearly forty years.

* * * * *

But there is no mention of Jim Jones or Peoples Temple in the biographies of Carlton Goodlett. It is as if he were not one of their staunchest defenders, beginning in 1970, through editorials in the San Francisco Sun Reporter newspaper, which Goodlett published for decades. For instance, Goodlett defended Jones when unwanted scrutiny sought to expose the movement in 1977. He later blamed the tragedy in Jonestown on the city’s black churches. In addition to being Jones’ personal physician, he had personally assisted Jonestown’s doctor Larry Schacht, who purportedly supervised the killings on that day, in getting access to medical school training. Tom Fleming, editor of the Sun Reporter, enjoyed a warm relationship with Mike Prokes, chief propagandist for the movement.

At the 1999 dedication of 1 Carlton B. Goodlett Way at City Hall, Fleming referred to Goodlett as the “champion of the people.” And rightly so. But it is also true that he was a champion of Peoples Temple in the black community. Without Goodlett, the Temple’s claim to be a revolutionary movement committed to deep love and acceptance of many of the city’s poor, elderly, and rejected people may not have had legitimacy in the black community.

Among the two dozen churches that served the African American community in the Fillmore/Western Addition district, a few extended fellowship to Jones and Peoples Temple, granting instant standing in the community. None were more influential in this than Goodlett, who was a trustee at Third Baptist Church, Glide Memorial Methodist Church pastor Cecil Williams, Rev. George Bedford of Macedonia Missionary Baptist, and the San Francisco Nation of Islam under Wallace Muhammad.

J. Alfred Smith, Sr., of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, who also accepted Jones, has written that “the 1970s were a dark age for the Black church in San Francisco,” which made Peoples Temple more appealing to the black community. He insists that most of the churches were steeped in a middle-class otherworldly orientation, with no outreach to poorer individuals. The more conservative churches altogether ignored Jones and Peoples Temple, as did most people in the city. The point here is not to malign the memory of Dr. Goodlett or other black leadership of the time, rather it is to suggest that their pacts of silence and the religious, political, and cognitive “distancing” which David Chidester describes in his book, Salvation and Suicide, have erased the humanity of those lost in the process of erasing their responsibilities.

* * * * *

One survivor who left Jonestown on the morning of the massacre later said, “There was a lot of things being said about [Peoples Temple], but then put yourself in my place. If you sit there and watch the congressmen and the chief of police and the governor and people like that come to visit a place, you kind of think it’s a choice place to be….Assemblyman Willie Brown was there on several occasions. He made speeches about how the program was an accepted program. I figured if anybody should know, they should know. You can’t be fooling these people.” Part of the support which Jim Jones received from key political and religious figures – including Goodlett, Willie Brown, and Cecil Williams – grew expressly from these individuals’ sense that most of the black churches in the city were irrelevant and ineffective in mobilizing in the mode of the Southern movement.

Williams discussed his relationship with Jones in his 1979 autobiography, callously titled, I’m Alive!, in which he expresses anger toward Jones because he “didn’t die first.” Using his book to address Jones directly, Williams insisted Temple members “had a need because they were poor and black…. You exploited their weaknesses to strengthen your own institution. The poor will always be exploited, because their needs are so great. There will always be room for you, Jim, and I am angry at that. How badly did you want to be black, Jim?… You used me for that, I realize it now. You traded on my blackness as a calling card to open certain doors in the community…. Look at what you did to them at your last communion, mounds of black bodies paying homage to the Father, the Great White Father. Hundreds of black corpses on that jungle floor, dead at your insistence. I am not belittling the white people who died in Jonestown. Human life is human life. But you advanced yourself as champion of the poor and it was all the basest deceit”.

Other Peoples Temple supporters remained mostly silent or obtuse about the subsequent annihilation at Jonestown, Guyana, such as former Assemblyman and future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, whose mention of Jones and Peoples Temple is less than a page in his autobiography and who dismisses the entire Jonestown horror as “irrelevant.” Brown also notes that Jones was a “strange person,” who “was a marginal figure in San Francisco church circles.”

When Mayor George Moscone appointed Jones to the Public Housing Authority, according to Brown, he “essentially made [Jones] one of the largest landlords in San Francisco.” But the relationship was much deeper, according to biographer James Richardson and San Francisco journalist Tim Reiterman. Less than a month after the massacre, Brown moved forward with plans to host a fundraiser for Peoples Temple. A Sun Reporter editorial chastised San Francisco’s black churches after the murder-suicides. In an anonymous editorial written five days later, the paper stated:

The churches of the land, and especially the black churches of San Francisco, might well emulate the commitment of Peoples Temple, which brought so many people together under their banner because they believed this religious institution was totally committed to changing the sordid circumstances of their lives. Peoples Temple members….thought they might leave a legacy of hope and inspiration to the oppressed of the world. The black churches, which in ages past have served as a refuge in the dark days of the black experience, must hold high the banner of the Christian faith, proclaiming through action that the gospel of Christ is a vibrant, dynamic, life-giving concept, and especially that Christianity is a commitment that men live for, rather than one that they die for.

When Peoples Temple died in Guyana, the black churches of California and nationwide suffered their own death. The denial, the shame, and the indifference continue to this day. Nearly all of the local political elites continued in their careers. Many of the religious leaders engaged in victim-blaming remonstrations. Histories were buried along with the bodies. As time moves on, we are losing the witnesses to the Peoples Temple movement when they are so urgently needed. San Francisco’s African American community is in decline, and many of those who remain are no better off than those who Peoples Temple ministered through its human services programs several decades ago.

The many men in power, like Willie Brown, Cecil Williams, Mervyn Dymally, and Carlton Goodlett, who aided and abetted in its prominence among the city’s poor, elderly, and black community, have “moved on” and forged a pact of silence and redacted their roles in Peoples Temple from their biographies. Nothing happened. No responsibility. Irrelevant.

Irrelevant? Peoples Temple still needs witnesses who can make sure that future generations of people understand its original commitments and who among it was or was not a champion of the people. Those witnesses should not be obliged to stand by the pact of silence which was put into service of others’ reputations and careers and the erasure of its mostly African American members.

(James Lance Taylor is Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco, teaches African American Studies at UC Berkeley. His current book project, Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and Black America, seeks to recover the memory of Peoples Temple and its work in San Francisco and elsewhere. His previous article for the jonestown report is Bring Out The “Black Dimensions” Of Peoples Temple. He can be reached at taylorj@usfca.edu.

(An article written by Carlton Goodlett in 1988 for the book The Need For A Second Look At Jonestown, edited by Rebecca Moore and Fielding M. McGehee III for Edwin Mellen Press, in Lewiston, New York, appears here.)

Last modified on December 7th, 2013.
Skip to main content