The Effects of Segregation and Racism in 20th Century America On the Growth of Peoples Temple

by Kellen Datta

(This paper was written in December 2013 for a thesis class at Academic Magnet High School, in Charleston, SC, which requires all students to conduct original research as a graduation requirement.)

Peoples Temple, the infamous group involved in the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978, remains a permanent fixture in American pop culture as a paranoid, fringe cult. The Temple grew out of a desire by leader Jim Jones to create an integrated society in the midst of racial turmoil. This research focused on the extent of this goal of integration in its success of recruiting members. To determine such motivations, the researcher focused on literature involving interviews and personal accounts of former Temple members, including those who perished in the Jonestown suicide. While sufficient evidence was found to deem racism a motivational factor for some members, both black and white, the researcher cannot claim it to be the primary reason for people joining the Temple. The conclusion verifies the importance of avoiding alienation of factions from the greater whole of society because future groups could easily end tragically, just like Jonestown. To close, the findings imply that unfavorable conditions in culture, such as racism, can drive some to seek something seemingly better, even something as ultimately destructive as Peoples Temple.

 

Chapter I: The Effects of Segregation and Racism in 20th Century America on the Growth of Peoples Temple

This chapter aims to acquaint the reader with background knowledge pertaining to the researcher’s goal of determining the extent to which segregation and racism affected the expansion of Peoples Temple during the mid-20th century.

 

Statement of Need

This thesis will focus on Peoples Temple, led by Reverend Jim Jones in the 1960s and 1970s in Indiana, California, and Guyana. While there is no exact definition of a cult, a general sociological definition is a “group with novel religious beliefs and a high degree of tension with the surrounding society” (Shermer, 2011, Is Scientology a cult? section, para. 2). Shermer and Davis (1996) both agree that all religions begin as cults, and transition into sects and religions as they become more widely accepted and practiced.

Jones led himself and over 900 of his followers to a communal suicide on their compound in Guyana, Jonestown, in 1978. It is important to note that the suicide was a planned event, and all participants had previously agreed to end their lives in such a way, if necessary. Since Peoples Temple was a predominantly black community focused on creating an integrated, socialist, and utopian style society (Nelson), the researcher has chosen to incorporate into her thesis the effects of segregation and racism on the growth and popularity of the Temple. With a black population of over sixty percent, it is vital to determine why the Temple parapealed so greatly to such a specific and limited group of people versus a larger and more diverse population. This is not to say that other races did not join, but they did not comprise any sort of majority within the Temple. Having a minority racial group present as a majority is one of many unique factors that set the Temple apart from so many other churches. Although constantly overshadowed by the notorious mass suicide of Jonestown, the black majority is an important aspect to the Temple that requires more attention in both history and research.

The United States Supreme Court deemed segregation a legal institution under Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. While segregation was supposed to be upheld under the grounds of “separate but equal” (Plessy v. Ferguson), the black facilities were often severely lacking in comparison to the whites’. Segregation ultimately oppressed the black race and denied them the civil rights of its white counterparts. However, segregation was just one facet of an over-arching racist attitude throughout the United States, with most racism simply being social and cultural ideologies and thoughts, rather than federal law. Many blacks felt disenfranchised and deprived of their civil rights, which may have caused them to turn to idealistic groups such as Peoples Temple.

Currently, there is much debate over what motivates people to join a cult. Davis (1996) explores the motivation to join a cult by questioning whether people join because they truly believe in the cult’s teachings or if it is a psychological pull that entices them. Johnson (1979) believes that “those suffering various kinds of deprivation” (p. 316) are more likely to join cults, which may explain why Peoples Temple was primarily black, since they were so vehemently denied their civil liberties under unjust Jim Crow laws and racist attitudes in much of the United States during the 1950s and 60s.

 

Main Goal of the Project

This thesis intends to discover and analyze the role that racism and racist attitudes towards blacks in America had on the growth, popularity, and eventual demise of Peoples Temple. Peoples Temple was a predominantly black group, albeit being led by Jim Jones, who was a white male, and existed during the height of the American Civil Rights movement from the 1950s-1970s. The researcher expects to find a significant link between the disenfranchisement of blacks, both legally and socially, and the utopian and egalitarian style community that Peoples Temple offered.

The oppression of the black race through slavery and segregation will remain a permanent flaw in America, the self-proclaimed land of equality and opportunity. Peoples Temple, although ultimately ending in tragic death, initially offered a community that was free from societal pressures, conditions, and prejudices. While previous research has been conducted on the racial makeup and the black religious aspects of the Temple, there is little current research focusing specifically on the factors of racism relating to Peoples Temple. This thesis will hopefully not only provide evidence for why people join self-destructive groups, but also formulate new theories about the ultimate effects of oppressing and disenfranchising a group of people for an extended period of time. This knowledge could potentially be applied to the gay rights movement and oppression of women in Middle Eastern countries in today’s world.

The researcher gained full knowledge of Peoples Temple, Jonestown and racism from a historical standpoint, and remained unbiased in her sources and analysis as possible. History served as the primary field of study in this thesis, with race relations as a secondary field. A simple understanding of black religion, such as preaching styles and African Methodist Episcopal Churches, aided in understanding the purely religious incentive for blacks to join the Temple. While this research focused specifically on blacks in the Temple, other non-racial motivating factors were taken into account. The Civil Rights movement was strongly incorporated into this thesis to understand changing attitudes about race in the United States as Peoples Temple morphed into a precarious and uncertain faction.

 

Methods and Evaluation

This thesis required an in-depth analysis of Jonestown, racism in America, and black religion. Finding distinct evidence citing racial inequality and segregation as a recurring and common motivation for joining Peoples Temple from personal anecdotes from survivors of Jonestown led the researcher to conduct a causal study. The researcher completed a historical analysis on both aspects of the thesis, racism and Peoples Temple, allowed a full understanding of the influence that both institutions had on one another.

Primary sources from Peoples Temple provided substantial information on the social structure, prevailing attitudes, and beliefs within the Temple at the time of its existence. Secondary sources delivered information on Jonestown and racism from an unbiased, outsider standpoint that supplemented the primary sources directly from the Temple. The final product remained the traditional five-chapter thesis, containing brief numerical data, with an emphasis on narrative analysis.

A specific relationship does in fact exist between the racism and the Temple’s values and offerings, so it can be considered a motivating factor. For example, since segregation explicitly separated black and white races, exact evidence of racial integration within the Temple help to justify the claim. Well-supported inferences factored heavily into the analysis much more than initially expected, because sources directly from Temple members are limited due to the majority’s untimely death. Rather than limiting herself to segregation, the researcher sought out interviews with members who experienced multiple types of social racism. Regardless of the number of correlations found, the researcher is unable to declare racism as the primary motivation to join the Temple, but enough evidence was found to validate her findings and their relevance to the research field.

Since historical research can only truly be deemed valid based on the opinion of professional historians and other members of academia, the researcher sent her work to Jonestown historian Professor Rebecca Moore at San Diego State University to seek her opinion and advice. Professor Moore referred the researcher’s work to Fielding McGehee, another Jonestown expert, and Dr. James Lance Taylor at the University of San Francisco, who is conducting similar research.

 

Implications

The results that arose from this thesis imply a specific correlation between the negative aura of racism and joining Peoples Temple, as well as establishing Peoples Temple as a pseudo-utopian society, at least superficially. While this thesis in no way sought to condone the actions of mass suicide, forced murder, or the philosophy of Jim Jones, the researcher learned to appreciated the rationale that lay deep beneath the radical beliefs of the Temple in light of the social issues involving intolerance and racism.

 

Significance

While research exists on black religion’s relationship to Peoples Temple, this thesis conducted original research by isolating racism as a variable and its effects on the Temple. It is important to note that over sixty percent of the Temple’s population was black, which strengthens one correlational link between this study’s two factors. This research could not prove any sort of causational motivation to join Peoples Temple, but it did contribute to understanding what caused such a destructive and volatile group to continue to gain members even after its unstable behavior became evident upon acceptance.

 

Applicability

The data gathered in this thesis can be applied to the religious studies research field for any researcher pursuing new outlooks specifically on Jonestown or on religion as a whole. Although Jonestown is commonplace in popular culture, many do not truly understand the significance it holds in the world of religion because it appears so unorthodox to the outside world. However, understanding the appeals of a unique religious group is applicable to the mainstream religions, such as Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity and determine the factors that made such religions so successful, as well as the factors that brought about the end of Peoples Temple. Since this thesis chose to focus on racism, the researcher hopes that this aspect will shift attention towards social inequality in the real world, and encourage people to recognize and help end such injustice before it escalates to extremes and leads to a tragedy such as Jonestown.

 

Chapter II: A Review of Literature on the Effects of Segregation and Racism in 20th Century America on the Growth of Peoples Temple

Researchers propose many theories accounting for the success and ultimate demise of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Although the current literature covers a wide variety of motivational and brainwashing hypotheses, this review, instead, chooses to focus on the recurring theme of Peoples Temple and the less conspicuous factor of segregation. The information discussed in this review is organized thematically and includes various subtopics, incorporating conflicting conclusions regarding the definition of a cult, the motivation to join a cult, and the inherent lure of Peoples Temple. Generally, this literature review seeks to discover the relationship between segregation and the growth, popularity, and initial success of Temple, while also presenting details concerning black religion, utopian societies, and religious coercion and motivation.

 

Cults

Researchers often dispute the exact definition of a cult because it is a highly subjective area; outsiders see a cult as a menacing presence, while members view it as a religion worth following. Shermer (2011) defines a cult as a “group with novel religious beliefs and a high degree of tension with the surrounding society” (Is Scientology a cult? section, para. 2). A group branded as a cult tends to vary highly from mainstream society and seem unusual when compared to more accepted groups in terms of its belief systems, social structure, or conversion methods. The Cult Awareness Network provides a more specific definition, declaring them “closed system[s] whose followers have been unethically and deceptively recruited through the use of manipulative techniques…” (as cited in Davis, p. 147). The Cult Awareness Network elaborates on specific qualities that a group may need to demonstrate to be classified as a cult, but presents them in a negatively biased way, thus diminishing their objectivity. However, both Shermer and Davis agree that all religions begin as cults until they “either die out or transition into [the] mainstream” (Shermer, Is Scientology a cult? section, para. 2) This agreement reinforces the significance of the “closed system” (Davis, p. 147), as in isolation, and unconventionality aspects in labeling a group as a cult.

 

Characteristics of Cults

In order for a group to be considered a cult, it must exhibit further characteristics than simply being unique and unorthodox. Hough and Twemlow (2008) note that Jim Jones exhibited “grandiose and visionary spirituality” (The Final Days of Peoples Temple at Jonestown section, para. 2) as a method to gain and maintain followers in Peoples Temple. This aspect of fantastic and infallible religious quality correlates strongly with the traits of “absolute morality” and “persuasive techniques” (Characteristics section, para. 1) that Shermer recognizes as identifying features of a cult. Shermer expands on the isolation aspect of a cult, describing an “in group- out group mentality” (Characteristics section, para. 1), where the cult separates itself and ultimately contributes to its own conflict with society. Isolation keeps the cult entirely wrapped within its own beliefs and alienates it further from conventional society. Moore, Pinn, and Sawyer (2004) acknowledge that “the more isolated the cult, the more tentative is the retention of a larger reality for both leader and follower” (p. 36), supporting Shermer’s characteristics, as well as the suggestion that isolation increases the prevalence and acceptance of the group’s specific beliefs. In the case of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, the main subject of this review, the group isolated itself to Guyana in 1977 to avoid the influences of capitalism, scrutiny, and suspicion from the United States government, as well as other American citizens (Nelson). Isolation fosters the growth of the cult’s beliefs since outside beliefs are often discouraged and quelled.

 

Understanding Cults

Scientology, which many consider to be a cult-like religion, has experienced tension within society because of its appearance as an evidence lacking “pseudo-science” (Manca). According to Shermer, Scientology maintains a strong devotion “over 10 million members” and is the self-proclaimed “fastest growing religion” (Understanding Scientology section, para. 1). However, it continues to segregate itself from mainstream society through “exploitative” (Understanding Scientology section, para. 1) measures such as Narconon, which is a drug rehabilitation program utilized in Scientology that decries the use of prescription medicine to treat disorders such as depression and anxiety (Manca, Analysis section, para. 1).

Consulting Shermer’s list of cult characteristics, Scientology’s employment of Narconon could be classified as “absolute truth” and “absolute morality” (Characteristics section, para. 1). Scientology also requires members to “pay tens of thousands of dollars” (Shermer, Introduction section, para, 3) to be educated on the religion’s complete genesis story. Applying Shermer’s list, the requirement of large sums of money could branded as “financial exploitation” and “deceit and hidden agendas” (Shermer, Characteristics section, para. 1), since the story is withheld until the members pay the fee. While, as previously noted, many consider Scientology to be a cult, it is important to remember that determining a group to be a cult is entirely subjective to the person at hand. What one considers a cult may appear to be a perfectly average group to another.

 

Alternative Terms

To increase objectivity in the research field, Siegler (2007) prefers to use the term “new religious movement” (p. 17) for groups that would otherwise be labeled as a cult. Although the two are interchangeable, the term “cult” has a recognizable “pejorative [connotation]” (Siegler, p. 16) as it has become associated with groups like Jonestown and the Branch Davidians, which have both experienced violent mass suicides in their final days and demise. Wessinger (2000) also prefers to refer to cult-like groups as new religious movements. New religious movements, hereafter referred to as NRMs, are deemed religious because they recognize the “existence of supernatural… beings…” and “[answer]… the ultimate questions of life” (p. 17) for those who choose to follow such groups. It is important to note that a group referred to as a cult is not inherently bad, as “cult” is simply a word that has been assigned as a label for a group and provides no definitive information pertaining to said group. Although the ideas offered by NRMs are often seen by society as unusual or new, those who choose to follow them see it as an answer to the spiritual questions in life, just as believers of mainstream religions view their respective religion. Siegler and Shermer both agree that NRMs and cults must experience outward tension with society before being classified as such.

Mainstream religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do not experience the same tension that cults face because they have such a large number of adherents and are so widespread. The isolation cults force upon themselves is occasionally increased by incredibly unorthodox behavior, such as mass suicides, as seen in Jonestown in Guyana in 1978 and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda in 2000 (Siegler). Mass suicides and killings in cults bring the groups into the media and give them worldwide, albeit negative, recognition. Ironically, the tension violent cults experience in society often increases after their self-inflicted demises as the stories gain national and international media attention.

 

Jim Jones and Peoples Temple

Jim Jones was born in 1931 in Indiana to Lynetta Putnam Jones and James T. Jones (Wessinger, p. 31). Jones grew up in an impoverished family during the time of segregation, and although white, often preached racial equality and associated himself with communist ideals (p. 32). Jones’ adamant belief in integration is apparent because he and his wife adopted multiple Asian and black children, including their son Jim Jones Jr. who survived the mass suicide of Peoples Temple in 1978 (Nelson). In the 1950s, Jones began to be recognized as an effective healing pastor with amazing claims made by congregation members of watching him make “the crippled walk and the blind see” (Healing Service, 1972, p. 1). The Temple used this unique attraction to draw significant interest from financial support for what he called “apostolic socialism” (Wessinger, p. 32), meaning an economically and racially egalitarian society. Both Siegler and Wessinger agree that Jones did not originally begin Peoples Temple as a cult or NRM, but rather as a branch of the mainstream and socially-accepted Disciples of Christ Church.

Jones and his racially diverse band of followers moved from Indiana to Redwood Valley, California in 1965 to escape persecution from segregationists and the active Ku Klux Klan (Wessinger, p. 33). While Jones did admirably accept and actively encourage the integration of blacks and whites in his followers, he took a “psychological decline into drug addiction” (p. 35). Hough and Twemlow note that Jones had an affinity for “painkillers, tranquilizers, and amphetamines since the early 1970s” (p. 6). Followers note that Jones’ speeches and ideas became more senseless and varied as the cult became more socially isolated in both California and Guyana during the 1970s (Nelson). His mental decline could be attributed to his drug use, isolation of Peoples Temple, and perceived persecution from the United States government (Nelson). As his drug abuse continued, Hough and Twemlow remark Jones exhibited abusive behavior towards devotees and utilized “extensive beatings and spankings of followers” (The Final Days section, para. 3). Deborah Layton, a survivor of the Jonestown mass suicide, attests to these accusations of violence from Jones with a claim that Jones forced himself upon her sexually without her consent and told her, “I’m doing this for you” (Nelson). Jones continued with public beatings and forced members to fight one another (Hough & Twemlow; Nelson). As these violent actions became more commonplace within the Temple, once devout members began to question the direction in which Jones was leading the church.

 

Jones’ Leadership

Coupled with his drug addiction, Jones also exhibited a personality disorder that E. Jones (1951) would describe as a god complex because he both saw and described himself as the “only God you’ve ever seen” (Hough & Twemlow, p. 6). Jones consistently presented himself as the “messiah” and “savior” (Moore, Pinn, & Sawyer, p. 16) for his followers. E. Jones describes someone with a god complex as a person who feels he has “can do everything [and] can also know everything” (p. 256). Shermer would label Jones’ self-described embodiment of God as complete “veneration… [and] inerrancy of the leader,” as well as an exhibition of “absolute truth” (Characteristics section, para. 1) to be taught by Peoples Temple to its members. Jones himself proclaimed that adherents of Peoples Temple “see Christ in me” (Nelson).

His devotees followed him blindly, and many of the early Peoples Temple members uprooted themselves from their homes in Indiana in 1965 to move to Redwood Valley, California, and then in 1977 to Jonestown in Guyana, simply following Jones and his plans for furthering Peoples Temple (Nelson). Johnson (1979) recognizes that complete devotion to a leader can frequently cause followers to “resent their subordination and resist their leader’s demands” (p. 317). Jonestown citizens experienced feelings of resistance towards Jones and his requests during the final days of Peoples Temple after United States Congressman Leo Ryan came to visit the settlement and on the final day of the Temple’s existence as Jones demanded that all members commit planned mass suicide (Nelson).

In terms of his leadership style, Jones exemplified the qualities of revivalist and gospel style preaching, such as invigorating contact with the crowd, powerful speeches laden with ethos and pathos, and interactive song and dance to maintain excitement and enthusiasm (Nelson). This gospel preaching style drew many black members into Peoples Temple in both Indiana and California (Nelson) because African Methodist Episcopal churches, hereafter referred to as AME churches, which are predominantly black, often feature the same type of qualities in their services and preaching. Moore, Pinn, and Sawyer note that “in… black cults a leader…was more than a mere pastor. He represented absolute authority and commanded absolute obedience” (p. 39). This unique leadership trait may suggest a cyclic correlation between Jones’ leadership and his congregation demographics, and that both were influencing one another.

While Jones’ enthusiasm originally drew members in and kept them in attendance, his intense demands soon turned to the extreme when he conducted a test of loyalty in the early 1970s with his congregation in California . He instructed members to drink a beverage from a cup, and only afterwards told them it was poison. After obvious chaos ensued, he mentioned that the drink was not actually poisoned, but rather that it was merely a test of loyalty on the part of the members to observe their dedication to Jones, Peoples Temple, and its ideals (Nelson). This trial merely foreshadowed the future mass suicide in Jonestown in 1978 that would come to be known in popular culture as “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

 

Peoples Temple Members

Three distinct types of people joined Peoples Temple: white families in Indiana, young whites with higher education in California after 1968, and blacks from San Francisco and Los Angeles who were exposed to Peoples Temple through its urban ministry work in the 1970s (Wessinger, p. 35). Blacks were drawn to Jones and the Temple because of his profound, interactive preaching style, his promotion of integration, and his identification with the black race (Nelson). Johnson believes that “those suffering various kinds of deprivation” are more likely to join cults since they “make the members as dependent as possible” (p. 316). Moore, Pinn, and Sawyer support this assertion, but elaborate to include “individuals whose despair of relief has become…pronounced…[and turn] from ‘rational’ or conventional resources” (p. 37). Jones exhibited extreme control over the Temple’s members by forcing some to work over 20 hours a day solely to benefit the Temple and its institutions, as well as coercing some into moving cross country from Indiana to California, and later to Guyana (Nelson).

 

Peoples Temple Demographics

A study by Moore, Pinn, and Sawyer found that 68% of the population of the Temple was black, 24% white, 5% racially mixed, and 3% of other races, i.e. Asian and Indian (p. 61). A demographics study concluded that the majority of Peoples Temple members originated from Southern and Midwestern states, such as Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, and Indiana (p. 62). Unsurprisingly, the majority of followers were from California, a fact supported by Wessinger’s claim that most blacks joined in California due to the Temple’s ministry work within the city. About 93% of the members from Southern states were African American (p. 63), supporting the researcher’s claim and the goal of this thesis that extreme racial tensions and oppressive laws of the region may have driven them to join the Temple. Regarding this, Moore, Pinn, and Sawyer also believe that the stronghold of members from Southern states in the Temple may contribute to its predominantly black demographic because of the black exodus out of the South during the 1930s and 40s as they looked to escape the oppressive South and find work in the more opportune north and west (p. 72).

 

Peoples Temple in California

California provided Peoples Temple with a significantly more open environment for the group to grow and gain influence in society. Peoples Temple gained both a sizeable number of black followers and significant political influence in San Francisco (Nelson). Jones became a member of the entourage of United States vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1976, which turned Peoples Temple into a highly public spectacle (Nelson). Ironically, as Jones gained political power through his campaign work, he also became further paranoid about the supposed government threat towards Peoples Temple and its ideals (Nelson), perhaps due to his increased drug usage.

 

The End of Jonestown

Wessinger and Nelson concur that the end of Jonestown was imminent, but was sparked to immediate destruction with the undesirable visit of United States Congressman Leo Ryan to the compound. Ryan and his entourage travelled to Guyana on November 14, 1978 to investigate possible human rights violations with the intention of returning home with any potential defectors (Nelson). Upon his arrival in Jonestown on November 17, Ryan found a warm, friendly community, until later that evening when several members slipped the crew notes expressing their wishes to secretly flee with Ryan when he departed (Nelson). It was obvious at this point that Jonestown was falling, and Jones was the “patriarch of a dysfunctional family” (Wessinger, p. 47) that was suddenly thirsting for an escape to America.

Even with a few defiant defectors, the majority of members remained devoutly loyal to both the Temple and Jones even into its final hours. Recognizing the danger of Ryan’s return to the United States, a few people trailed the congressional party to the Port Kaituma airstrip, where they opened fire, killing Ryan, three newspeople and a Temple defector (Nelson). Simultaneously to this occurrence, Jones began the well-rehearsed collective suicide to end the existence of Jonestown and the entire Peoples Temple. A cyanide-laced fruit drink was distributed to all members, beginning with the children, so that the Temple could escape the “conditions of an inhumane world” (Jones; as quoted in Wessinger, p. 51). Annie Moore, suspected to be the last person to perish, left behind a brief note that summarized every goal and aspiration the Temple held until its last moments with the simple words, “we died because you would not let us live in peace” (as quoted in Wessinger, p. 52). The Temple, in all its grandeur and utopian equality, imploded upon itself in a fantastic, albeit tragic, end that will forever set it apart as a unique case of human coercion, devotion, and an attempt to create a paradise.

 

Racism in the United States

The United States has always experienced strained race relations among its diverse population since its inception, but the tension has been especially prominent during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow laws. As Bonilla-Silva and Lewis (1996) note, such legislation forced blacks into “subordinate position[s]” (p. 2) through “exclusionary practices” (p. 3). Adamant racism existed most prominently in the Southern United States, but the North was by no means exempt from discriminatory behavior. Even so, massive migrations of over six million blacks from the South to the North continued from the years 1910 to 1970 (p. 5). These migrations continued through times of increased political activism regarding race relations, which, in turn, allowed blacks to create a “small but thriving middle class” (p. 5) in the North, even in the face of discrimination throughout the nation.

 

Segregation

The federal government of the United States upheld the legality of segregation in the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Black citizens were entitled to facilities equal in quality to white facilities, but could remain separate. The intention of the case was not to “destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish… involuntary servitude” (Plessy v. Ferguson, article 543). While Plessy v. Ferguson affirmed that segregation was, at the time, legal in accordance with prior amendments and laws, it still managed to disenfranchise blacks as they remained separate from whites, but in no sense equal in reputation or treatment. The cases maintained its constitutionality since it did not reintroduce slavery, which was banned by the 13th Amendment, or deny blacks citizenship, which was guaranteed by the 14th amendment (Plessy v. Ferguson, article 543).

Peoples Temple began and lasted during the throes of segregation and the civil rights movement, and Jones founded it with the intention of creating an equal and integrated group comprised of members of all races (Nelson). Including black members increased the size and broadened the influence of Peoples Temple, but also caused strife between the Temple and the external community in both Indiana and later Redwood Valley, California (Nelson). Jones imagined persecution from the federal government as well as the majority of society because of Peoples Temple’s beliefs in integration, socialism, and communism (Nelson).

 

Race Laws in Indiana

Jones was born and raised in Indiana and subsequently created Peoples Temple in his home state. Peoples Temple existed in Indiana until 1965, when the integrated congregation chose to move to Redwood Valley, California to escape the racial tension and persecution they felt in Indiana (Nelson). According to Murray (2007), the Indiana race laws prior to integration banned slavery, as granted by the 13th Amendment, gave all citizens the right to vote, as provided by the 14th Amendment, and employed separate but equal accommodations for both whites and blacks. However, while Indiana did technically provide equal rights for blacks both socially and in the workplace, as in most other states, blacks and whites remained inherently unequal in their accommodations. Indiana strictly prohibited “miscegenation” (Murray, p. 150), or the intermarriage of blacks and whites, which was defined as one person of the relationship being of “one-eighth part or more of negro blood” (p. 150).

 

Black Power

Along with renewed hope for black prosperity, the 1950s and 60s proved to be tumultuous decades of intense Black power movements, working to inspire revolution among the minorities and youth empowerment. Reverend Jones chose to adopt strong influences from “Black Panther rhetoric” into the daily life of Peoples Temple in order to advocate the “socialist revolution” (Moore, Pinn, & Sawyer, p. 110) that would end “capitalist…racist…fascist America” (p. 111). The Black Panther Party was founded in October of 1966 in Oakland, California. Like Jones, the Panthers also advocated “replac[ing] capitalism with socialism” (Hall, p. 54) to unify a starkly stratified society within the United States.

 

Integration within the Temple

Jones insisted from the early days of Peoples Temple on having a highly integrated and racially equal society (Nelson). Blacks and whites comingled and lived harmoniously within Peoples Temple, while the world outside of the Temple was harsh and threatening to their lifestyle, which, as previously stated, forced the group to move westward to the more liberal California in 1965 (Nelson). Smith and Yang (2009) note that, even with the passage of integration laws and a general social attitude of racial equality, churches still remain profoundly segregated even to this day. African-American Reverend John Perkins explained the modern day anomaly with the statement: “In King’s era, churches were segregated because whites didn’t want to be around blacks… today we both choose to be separate” (as cited in Smith & Yang, p. 2).

A news release by Peoples Temple (1974), proclaimed Jones a longstanding and “outspoken advocate of civil liberties” (p. 1) as the Temple travelled on “racially integrated buses” (p. 2) on a “missionary journey” (p. 1) to spread the teachings of brotherhood and equality within the congregation to the entire nation. While it certainly had many supporters, the Temple met staunch adversity when it campaigned through the Southern states (News Release: Caravan of Hope). The Southern United States historically experienced strong racial tensions between blacks and whites because of its former economic dependence on slavery. The buses were met with “racist slurs and threats” (p. 2), but Jones chose merely to sidestep this opposition to maintain the peaceful and upstanding image that Peoples Temple had dutifully created for itself (News Release: Caravan of Hope).

Taylor (2012), remarks that Peoples Temple is inherently a “black movement” and that its “original intentions” (p. 1) were in a sense, honorable, even if they did not pan out as such. To many, Jonestown was a place of solace, freedom, and happiness. The tragic end was not anticipated in the beginning, and as the end became clear, to most it just seemed to be a continuation of the group to whom they had so wholly devoted themselves.

 

Creating a Utopian Society

Both Nelson and Wessinger agree that Jones was intent on using “apostolic socialism” (p. 32) to create a perfectly equal and idealistic society for all Peoples Temple members. Former members and survivors of the Temple attest that Jones encouraged followers to devote nearly all of their time, energy, and monetary resources to benefit the Temple and its institutions (Nelson). By coercing members into focusing all of their external energy on internal customs, Jones exemplified what Shermer would designate as an “in-group out-group mentality” and “isolation from friends and family” (Characteristics section, para. 1). Internalizing and isolating Peoples Temple fostered the growth of its ideals, which in turn kept followers in the cult and discouraged outside opinions and influences (Nelson).

 

Chapter III: Methods to Determine the Effects of Segregation and Racism in 20th Century America on the Growth of Peoples Temple

This thesis sought to determine the extent to which racism and segregation in 20th century America influenced blacks to join Peoples Temple, a cult, a novel group experiencing unique beliefs or practices that cause societal tension, led by Reverend Jim Jones. A correlational study implemented by the researcher gathered qualitative data Temple rules and social lifestyles, but mostly drew from personal accounts from survivors and a few records of the Temple.

Peoples Temple was a cult in America during the 1950s-1970s, during the height of the American Civil Rights movement. Although Jones was white, the majority of Temple adherents were black due to religious similarities, and perhaps segregation, upon which this thesis focused. Peoples Temple gained global notoriety on November 18, 1978, when the integrated group of over 900 members chose to commit planned mass suicide to escape from the apparent dangers of capitalism and threat from the United States on their compound in Jonestown, Guyana.

 

Participants/Subjects

The subjects of this thesis were the 915 deceased members of Peoples Temple who died in Guyana, as well as the few survivors. The entire membership of Peoples Temple, not just those who relocated to Jonestown, had to be considered in the context of this thesis because it intends to determine if segregation was a motivating factor in joining the Temple. The Temple consisted of blacks, whites, and other races, as its primary intention was to create an egalitarian society, but this study will focused primarily on the black members since they were the targeted group in segregation policies in the United States from the 1950s through the 70s. However, other potential motivations to join Peoples Temple from all members, regardless of race, were accounted for to accurately determine the appeal of the church.

 

 

Apparatus/Materials

Racial attitudes and policies in America during the 20th century were required to accurately determine the state of black-white relations during the existence of Peoples Temple. Supreme Court cases Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were crucial background sources in determining the legal standpoint of segregation, and later desegregation, but did not factor into the analysis, as their content is common knowledge. The researcher gathered information on the social attitudes towards race and segregation from statements made by Temple members, as well as Jim Jones and others. Stories from Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski served as the primary source of data collection for determining people’s motivations to join the Temple, because it contained the most comprehensive collection of interviews available. The PBS documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple provided most of the historical information on the existence of Peoples Temple and the creation of Jonestown.

 

Procedures

To begin, the researcher completed the viewing of Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple and gained substantial, unbiased, historical information. She read Stories from Jonestown over the course of four days to gather data. Once this step was completed, she used a rubric to evaluate each interview for certain data points involving race and motivation to join the Temple. This rubric is presented in the presentation of findings. The documentary has been viewed again to ensure proper confirmation of subjects and information gathered from the initial viewing of the film. Data collection was best displayed in narrative paragraphs in the data collection chapter of the thesis paper. The researcher gathered her numerical data from Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America by Moore, Pinn, and Sawyer. Slight additions were made to their demographic calculations for better understanding of population statistics in the context of this thesis.

 

Evaluation

Since multiple members confirmed that aspects of racism was a motivational factor for their joining Peoples Temple, the researcher theorized a correlation specifically between racism and the Temple. Segregation did not factor strongly, contrary to initial assumptions. While multiple people cited racism as a motivational reason, it cannot necessarily be generalized to the entire Temple population. Although important in the grander sense of society, segregation proved to be a difficult aspect of racism to isolate as a motivational cause, and finding links between a more general attitude of racism and Peoples Temple membership proved to be significantly easier to support. Racism does encompass segregation, so it was not entirely discredited during the research process, just not the main point of focus.

 

Conclusion

The researcher found a significant correlation between racism against blacks and motivation to join Peoples Temple based on the time period of the Temple’s existence and its demographics. The researcher had no intention nor is able to cite segregation as a primary factor in the expansion of the Temple, but racism proved to be a reason for many people to join. Further research could be conducted to understand the appeal of utopian societies to those who feel alienated. The data also emphasizes the detrimental effect that segregation and racism had on American society and on the historical subordination of blacks in America.

 

Chapter IV: A Presentation of Findings Identifying the Effect of Racism and Segregation in 20th Century America on the Popularity of Peoples Temple

Jim Jones founded Peoples Temple with the inherent goal of creating a community that ignored racial and socioeconomic barriers. The integrated community within the Temple appealed strongly to both black and white members, exemplified by the intense focus placed upon the “message to reach blacks” (as cited in Fondakowski, p. 72). With racial equality as a key principle of Peoples Temple, it was inevitable that it would gain a large following of social idealists seeking refuge from the racially tumultuous 1960s. Blacks constituted almost three quarters of the Temple’s population as a whole, and specifically black females comprised close to half of the entire Temple.

Fondakowski’s (2013) collection of interviews entitled Stories from Jonestown served as the primary supplement for personal accounts of joining the Temple and following Jim Jones in his endeavors. The interviews remained predominantly white, although there was a concerted effort to gain more access to the black voice within the Temple’s survivors. Interestingly, the bulk of the white interviewees cited the egalitarian aspect of Jones’ Temple as a primary motivation for their joining. Although the concept of “races all working together” (p. 65) appealed strongly to blacks as well, the overwhelming similar views of whites was a surprising discovery.

 

Table 1

Black Demographics of Peoples Temple

State of Member Origin Black Member Population Total Population of All Races Black Percentage per State
Alabama 19 20 95%
Arkansas 39 41 95%
California 232 374 62%
Georgia 9 12 75%
Illinois 12 16 75%
Indiana 23 61 38%
Louisiana 53 54 98%
Mississippi 48 49 98%
Missouri 10 14 71%
New York 4 12 33%
Ohio 2 17 12%
Oklahoma 19 22 86%
Tennessee 11 11 100%
Texas 113 122 93%
Washington 5 14 36%
Total 599 839 71%

 

Note. Adapted from Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America (p. 63), by R. Moore, A.B. Pinn, and M.R. Sawyer, 2001, Bloomington , IN: Indiana University Press. Adapted with permission.

 

While Table 1 provides an accurate representation of the black populace of Peoples Temple, the data does not take into account states from which fewer than ten members originated, simply because the figures were not large enough to be included into a concise table. The data indicates a strong presence of blacks originating from the South in the Temple. The state of California represents the main point of origin for most members because the Temple gained the most political and religious authority during its time in Redwood Valley and Ukiah, California.

Presented below is the rubric used to analyze the interviews read in Fondakowski’s Stories from Jonestown. These interviews served as the primary data for collecting personal accounts detailing time spent interacting with and living amongst Peoples Temple. The researcher divided each interview into five categories and placed appropriate information in each section. Some of the people mentioned below were not members, or were not directly interviewed, which is noted beneath their names.

 

Table 2

Person Race Appeal of Temple Duration of Membership Initial impression of Temple  Mentions of race in interview with Fondakowski
Margaret Singer White Not applicable- well respected psychologist who is staunchly anti-cult and champions the theory of brainwashing. Not applicable Not applicable Briefly mentions the prominence of elderly black women in the Temple
Stephan Jones (son of Jim Jones) White Family ties- born into it Survived Jonestown suicides because he was in Georgetown the night of the 17th and morning of the 18th playing basketball. Knew nothing but Temple life but “didn’t experience the Temple as a healthy place…[and] lived in terror the first nineteen years of my life.” (56). Emphasizes the importance of providing black voices in the story of Peoples Temple.“I remember sitting watching the children of Jonestown walk up that main path and seeing every color imaginable in the rainbow, and being touched in a pal that’s deep and meaningful to me” (202).“At first Jones referred to the danger that threatened Jonestown as a ‘black night’ then commented that maybe it was racist to call anything as despairing as this ‘black.’ And since it was white people who were responsible for this, the danger should be known as a ‘White Night’” (212).
Grace Stoen Jones White Followed lover Tim Stoen“I was never a believer… my button was fear” (20). 1969-1975stayed because her “son John Victor… was in the church” (20). Enjoyed the concept, didn’t feel a strong pull to join, but followed Stoen. Began a relationship with Jim Jones, who is assumed to be the father of her son. “I loved the integration.” (18).“[Jim Jones] thought the Bible was racist” (20).
Carolyn Layton White “Concerned with social justice issues” (49). Died in Jonestown Loved its egalitarian appeal and divorced her husband, Larry Layton, for a relationship with Jim Jones. (Sister Rebecca Moore and parents John and Barbara Moore interviewed)Heard about “a church with a great preacher named Jim Jones that was integrated and was really doing things” (50).
Annie Moore White It practiced “true Christianity” (25) and was persuaded by older sister Carolyn. Died in Jonestown Quickly followed her sister and joined Peoples Temple. (Sister Rebecca Moore and parents John and Barbara Moore interviewed)
Laura Johnston Kohl White All our feelings were met” (28). Survived Jonestown suicides because she was in Georgetown doing Temple office work. Immediately loved it “Jim’s message was to reach blacks.” (72).Peoples Temple centered on cities such as “Houston, Shreveport, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and… Indianapolis” because they had substantial black population (72).
Garry Lambrev White Searching for political action in Ukiah, California. Not mentioned The Temple created “a life that seemed in some ways to embody my own hopes” (33). Spoke to a black woman, Patty Cartmell, who told him about “her extended family…white and black” (33).Jones proposed “an all-American family unit in which all the races and social classes are represented” (36).Jones predicted the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and used its accuracy to attract more blacks.

“…Never… have I been in such immediate contact and interaction with people of all races, particularly African Americans” (38).

Liz Foreman Schwartz White The strong sense of “community” (29). Not mentioned Heard from friends of “an interracial community” (39) led by a “socialist” (39). “I’m seeing white Anglo-Saxon Protestants from the Midwest totally integrated with black people” (39).
Hue Fortson Black The integration and equality of blacks and Whites Moved to Jonestown, but survived because he was in Los Angeles, California on November 18, 1978. Heard from his mother about the church having “all races all working together” (65) and strongly supported the racial equality. Jones would say “We as poor black and white people need to work together,” (66).Fortson tells of how Jones used Bible passages to emphasize the poor treatment of blacks in the real world.Jones would “ride on the bus with [his] people” to identify stronger with his black members.
Vernon Gosney White Gosney was in an interracial relationship and was unable to live in normal circumstances with her because “no one would rent to an interracial couple,” (76).“There was hope I was going to have a better life for me and my son” (79). Joined at 19 and was in and out of membership until he was 25 and living in Jonestown. Gosney was the first person to pass a note to Congressman Ryan’s entourage to seek help escaping. Injured while trying to leave with the Congressman, but successfully escaped. He enjoyed the integration, but was never fully compatible with the lifestyle the Temple championed. “It was, in a way, a Utopia, it was free of racism…” (76).“My family disowned me because I married a black woman” (76).
Juanita Bogue White Joined as a child with her parents in Redwood Valley, California. Joined at age 10, moved to Jonestown with family at 16, and left with Congressman Ryan’s entourage on November 18, 1978. Joined because of her parents but appreciated the sense of overarching family and community. “He said the reason we had to go to Jonestown was because we was sick and tired of dealing with racism and classism” (91).
Michael Briggs (not directly interviewed) White Joined with family as a child. Introduced in 1970 with foster family and left in 1977. Coming from a series of foster homes, Briggs enjoyed the sense of family. However, he recognized the issues within the Temple. He was sexually abused by Jones. none
Phil Tracy White Moved to San Francisco as a journalist in 1970 and joined a leftist political commune. Learned of the Temple and its left leaning views. Defected well before the move to Jonestown and wrote the stories of other defectors so they could alert the world of the misdoings in the Temple. Impressed by the “economy of scale” (109) and the ability of the Temple to function at such a large capacity and still be prosperous.Believed the Temple was “malignant” by the time he joined because of Jones’ paranoia. Jones stated that “The [Ku Klux] Klan is liable to strike at any time,” (110) signaling his paranoia to Tracy.
Rod Hicks Black He was not a direct member, but his family wanted to “try something new” (122) after meeting Jones.His sister, Marthea Hicks, stayed in the Temple because she found “the right way” (123) away from the “damned society [that] won’t let us do what we want to do,” (123). Two of his family members, who were part of the Temple musicians, died in the Jonestown suicides. Family was “impress by the man” (122) and how “marvelous [the church] was,” (122). “it was like the Garden of Eden over there” different types of people…it was like a glimpse of how our society could really be.” (123)
Tim Carter White Became disillusioned during the Vietnam war, and upon his return, joined the Temple in 1972. Not stated “It was like the perfect synthesis of everything that I believed in spiritually and politically,” (148). “Growing up I never knew any black people, and I was scared to death of any gay man.” (144)“When I came back from Vietnam I was radicalized…Peoples Temple made perfect sense to me… The black Panthers…they were calling for revolution,” (149).“I loved our family… Gloria was Chicano, Jocelyn was African American, and Lew was Korean, so we had a little United Nations” (275).
Jim Jones Jr. (adopted son of Jim and Marceline Jones) Black Son of leader Survived the Jonestown suicides. Appreciated the Temple and his family because it allowed him an affluent life that he otherwise would not have had.“My life is so good because I survived it,” (154). The first African American child to be adopted by a white family in the state of Indiana.Jones Jr. was unaware about the term “nigger” to describe black people, so Jones explained that it is a “derogatory [word] to put [blacks] down,” (153) and that he (Jones Jr.) was “a Negro,” (153).
Jean and Tim Clancey White Tim enjoyed the integrated, on racial, social, and age levels, society within the Temple, while Jean was more wary. The year they joined is not stated, but they were in San Francisco at the time of the suicides. Jean was initially “very offended” (160) by Jones, but she gradually fell into the belief system of the Temple.Tim immediately loved it. “You just couldn’t do enough I can’t speak for black people, but this is what hit me, a middle-class, religious, white kid who was deeply distressed about what was going on in the world,” (161).“Once inside the church, it was an amazing experience to have that kind of camaraderie with black and white… all these people together here in a warm and caring environment.” (163)
Henry Mercer (born in 1885- his story his told through a letter that he wrote) Black Mercer grew up during the height of racism and racial tensions in the United States. The Temple offered him equality with others that he could find nowhere else. Joined in 1973 and died in Jonestown. He was impressed by the preaching of Jim Jones and the “love going on around” (173) there. “I knew that the white kids had something that I just couldn’t have” (172).“I’ll never go back to the U.S. again. Jonestown is the onliest place you can relax, it’s the onliest palce you can be safe, and I love it out here” (173).
Diane “Deanna” Wilkinson Mixed race- half White/half Black As a mixed race female with a severe facial deformity and an intense substance abuse problem, Wilkinson did not fit in with her surroundings. Died in the Jonestown suicides. Met Jones and his family during her childhood, and upon their return to Indianapolis, joined up with the Temple and the only people who were ever truly kind to her.“I looked out the window and waved goodbye to Indiana. Goodbye to the pain and misery and know I never-ever had to look at that life anymore” (175). “I thought a lot of Jim Jones because he was living in the middle of a black neighborhood in the heart of the ghetto…” (175).
Janet Shular Black “Many people who came to the Temple were not looking for anything. They just stumbled into PT while on their life journey… they though they had a better chance at attaining a desired level of peace and joy in their lives” (180). Joined in 1970, but defection date not stated. Initially loved it, but soon realized the intense focus on death and the cult of personality surrounding Jones. “It’s no mystery. A great majority of the African American people were poor, and since Jim targeted that economic and social level, they were there in large numbers” (181).“For the most part… blacks and whites enjoyed living together in ways that transcended the issue of race. For some black people, it was a real joy to be in the company of whites and not be in fear of being spat upon or called a nigger” (181).“From this ‘black’ perspective, it was wonderful to be living in an integrated community because it was billed as being like no other place on earth that could equal its commitment to the masses of poor and downtrodden” (181).
Nell Smart Black “not a church, it was a meeting of people” (189) that presented appealing fellowship. Visited the Jonestown settlement to leave her children there, but did not live there. She was a member until the very end. “My kids wanted to be at the Temple rather than to be hanging out with the gang members and I thought ‘This is good’” (189). “’Those poor black people were ignorant black people.’ That’s the way it’s been received… so therefore they were duped.” (188)“Jim Jones left a horrible legacy… but he also left a group of people that proved his point that black and white can live together” (304).
Pop Jackson (born in 1874- his story is told through a letter) Black “I want Jonestown to be cared for because it cared for me” (212). Died in Jonestown A safe haven from racism “As long as you work with the white man, you live” (217).
Eugene Smith (adopted son of Mattie Gibson) Black Joined because of the devotion he felt towards his mother, Mattie Gibson. “And that’s how I survived. I was in Georgetown on the last day.” Enjoyed the utopian appeal of the Temple. “’You don’t want your children born over here in a capitalistic society, do you? Where they won’t get a fair shake?’” (240).“I’ve tried to not be a mad black man, because an angry black man in this society is a targeted black man” (308).“I feel it’s necessary to hear… a black man’s insight to what went on with him. I represent Eugene… and I’ve been hiding my life for twenty-five years. And I’m so tired of hiding my life” (309).
Mattie Gibson (adoptive mother of Eugene Smith) Black “My mother had always searched for the perfect religion” (236) and found it at the Temple. Died in Jonestown Lived a very difficult life, working hard for little money and no education, so the Temple offered her refuge from the struggle of the outside world. “There were lynchings. I have blocked it out” (238).
Hyacinth Thrash and Zipporah Edwards (sisters) Black Both felt a strong religious connection to the church, although Edwards was more invested than Thrash. Edwards died at Jonestown, but Hyacinth hid during the administration of the poison and emerged the next morning thinking she was the only survivor. Edwards- “I found my church! I found my church!” (260).Thrash believed Jones cured her of breast cancer at a service.Thrash- “I prayed a thousand times that God would forgive me for going in with Jim” (262). None
Claire Janaro White “The kids-the integrated children- the singing, the dancing, the talk of socialism and a life away up in the hills in Ukiah and Redwood Valley where we were safe from nuclear attack” (266). Sent her children to Jonestown in 1977, but she didn’t arrive until November 18, 1978 only to learn that everyone was dead. “I was totally converted the moment I walked into Peoples Temple” (266). “The kids-the integrated children…” (266).“My choice was to do this- to be in an integrated community, it’s my choice in my life, and my choice to live or die with it…” (268).
Donneter Lane Black Not applicable not a member, but head of San Francisco Churches in 1978 and helped gather unidentified bodies to bury. Not applicable “… What we couldn’t understand about Jones is how a white guy could mesmerize all these black people to go over there and then turn around and tell them all to ill themselves? He just wiped out the whole community, jstu about wiped it out” (302).

Chapter V: Discussing the Effect of Racism in 20th Century America on the Popularity of Peoples Temple

As seen through the rubric analyzing the collection of interviews present in Stories From Jonestown, the concept of race heavily influenced the founding of the Temple as well as its appeal. Throughout the research process, finding specific interviews and accounts from black members proved to be difficult. As noted in Stories from Jonestown, black former Temple members are significantly less likely to speak openly about their experiences with Jones, the Temple, and settlement of Jonestown itself. Fondakowski speculates the unusual occurrence could be due to a sense of contrived stigma surrounding Jonestown and the fact that so many blacks blindly followed a white man to their deaths.

Survivor Garry Lambrev, the first openly gay Peoples Temple member, aptly encompassed the basic goal of the Temple as an effort to “create… a democratic revolution, an extended… all-American family in which all the races and social classes are represented” (p. 36). At its root, Peoples Temple was nothing more than a valiant attempt to create a united band of socially aware citizens who were willing to work for the promised American equality that simply was not being delivered in a time of segregation and intense racism. However, Jim Jones’ intense focus on combating capitalism and racism with no room for compromise led to the Temple skewing towards the left wing fringe. Every Temple member was, in effect, a martyr for the cause of social justice and racial equality.

Most notably, Hue Fortson, Pop Jackson, Deanna Wilkinson, and Henry Mercer fit the expected persona that was being searched for during the research process. All four presented themselves as disenfranchised, unaccepted blacks who found a world of refuge and hope within Peoples Temple. Pop Jackson and Henry Mercer both raved about Peoples Temple and life in Jonestown, hailing it almost to the point of a messiah-like place, which is noteworthy because they were both born in the late 19th century, predating most Temple members’ birth. The two men lived the height of their lives before civil rights activism became a prominent social concern, so their experiences with racism were most likely much stronger based on the time period.

Although a few model accounts were found that fell exactly into the researcher’s hypothesis, the most interesting discovery was that, in accordance with racism, more whites sought out the Temple for its focus on integration and equality. Socially-conscious whites, such as Carolyn Layton, Annie Moore, and Grace Stoen Jones, sought out the Temple for its emphasis on integration. They recognized the detrimental effects of racism that were afflicting society, such as distinct socioeconomic class differences and a lack of basic civility and races amongst races. The white faction of Peoples Temple speaks strongly to the importance of racism as a motivation to join the Temple because they were not personally disenfranchised by such attitudes. Racism was not an issue solely for blacks and other minorities, but rather an attitude that needed to be acted against by the whites who were not subjected to it. The predominantly white voice speaking for the cause of racial equality could be because of a lack of willingness for black voices to speak up and because most black voices were lost in the suicides, but the strong presence of whites indicates the overarching emphasis of the Temple on egalitarianism amongst races, socioeconomic classes, and ages.

Peoples Temple, without a doubt, met and exceeded its goal to create an integrated society. Followers hailed from nearly all fifty states, socioeconomic classes, and age groups. However, the egalitarian aspect of the Temple and Jonestown failed in one glaring respect. Although most members performed equal work for the community with recruitment, office work, and outreach, Jones held himself above the group. Equality applied to all except for him. He was, in essence, God, the self-proclaimed leader to save Americans from the class and racial divisions that plagued the country. People such as Claire Janaro and Zipporah Edwards immediately “found [their] church” (p. 260) once arriving at the Temple, strongly due in part to Jones’ enthusiasm in the pulpit and his intense connection to the crowd. His supremacy does not negate the equality that the rest of the group experienced, but rather highlights his authoritarian leadership style, which made the group so effective in its fervency.

Peoples Temple and Jonestown arose at the tail end of segregation with its strongest American influence located out West, where Jim Crow laws were not as prevalent or strict as in the American South. Although legally racism was ending, socially it could not be eradicated. The time period holds significance in that, even though there were promises and laws passed to assist blacks in the transition to becoming equal citizens, many people, specifically Jim Jones, still recognized that society could never truly be free of racism. The noteworthy observation of a strong southern black presence leads the researcher to infer that Jim Crow laws influenced interest in the Temple. The Southern states that held the most representation are located in the Deep South, where racist attitudes run deep and still manifest themselves today. Many blacks who chose to follow Jones and the Temple could have been influenced, not by legal segregation, but most strongly by their existence in an area of the country where blacks were subordinates from the time of early colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries until the elimination of Jim Crow laws.

While there is no substantial data to prove this claim with absolute certainty, the inference holds strong value in itself. Peoples Temple provided a community of welcoming individuals who saw race as a benefit, not a barrier. All it demanded was utmost allegiance, which is a seemingly small price to pay when the alternative is a secondary position in society and generational disadvantages of slavery and sharecropping. Jim Jones demanded equality as his primary goal from the earliest days of the Temple. He adopted black children, encouraged people of all races to listen to the message of Peoples Temple, and maintained a truly unique congregation of blacks and whites that comingled freely amidst a world where they were staunchly divided.

The heavily black presence within the Temple and its foundation of equality for all races indicates that racism was an extremely relevant issue during the mid-20th century. Even more so, the idea that blacks would remain in a group such as Peoples Temple even after it clearly was dysfunctional with the White Nights, the manic behavior of Jones, and the massive relocation to South America, emphasizes just how extreme the effects of racism were on American society. The idea of communal suicide seemed better to most than having to live in a culture as permanent second-class citizens. An objectively horrific death, although entirely rational to most members, seemed significantly more appealing than surviving as unequal members of society.

While survivors from Jonestown do exist and many Peoples Temple members left before the relocation to Guyana, the researcher, and all other researchers, can never truly determine the exact reason for so many people choosing to follow Jim Jones. The popularity of Jonestown will forever be generalized to the proportionally few that escaped the planned suicide both before and at Jonestown on November 18, 1978. Due to this, the researcher could not adequately gain access to a large enough sample size of interviews or personal accounts that would suffice to generalize racism as the defining factor for most members. However, because the Temple’s main goal was to create a cohesive society of all races, the plausibility of discrimination and prejudice against blacks and other minorities as a significant reason for joining the Temple earns valid truth and accuracy.

 

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Last modified on March 8th, 2016.
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