Peoples Temple, in many respects, resembled a black church. Estimates placed the African American population of the congregation at 70 percent in Jonestown, Guyana and as high as 90 percent in California, although these numbers are difficult to confirm. In his essay “Jim Jones and Black Worship Traditions,” Milmon Harrison writes, “African American spirituality [has] a strong emphasis on social justice, the ultimate judgment of evil, and the rewarding of the oppressed,” and believes that God is on the side of the just. These ideas, particularly those about social justice, interested Peoples Temple leader Reverend Jim Jones. Kinship, another integral element of black religion, could also be found in Peoples Temple, as Jones stressed the importance of communalism and the needs of the group over the individual. These features of Peoples Temple appealed to a great number of African Americans, first in Indianapolis and later in California who sought comfort and support within the church.
The Reverend Jones’ Pentecostal style of preaching also attracted African American parishioners in large numbers. Jones encouraged ecstatic dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments during services. These services relied heavily on “call and response,” a typical feature of African American religion which included the “seemingly spontaneous vocal interjections” of responses such as “amen,” “hallelujah,” and “preach” following Jones’ words. “Thus it [became] highly participatory,” Harrison writes, “requiring or encouraging all in attendance not to remain outside the experience but to join the collectively produced celebratory event, thereby sharing in the blessing to come.” Jones’ cadence, expository preaching, and emotionalism also contributed to the African American religious experience in Peoples Temple. Additionally, Jones administered faith healings, practiced glossolalia, and prophesized events, “provid[ing] space for the exercise of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit,” writes Harrison.
This essay will specifically address racial issues within Peoples Temple. The deaths of so many Americans at Jonestown in November 1978 puzzled the masses and raised countless questions. How was Jones able to cultivate such a diverse following within Peoples Temple? How did race play into the religion and politics of Jones’ congregation? Why did his people remain loyal to him even until the very end, when they were told to “die with dignity”? What were the origins of Jones’ ideas about race and civil rights emanate? What were the “inhumane” conditions of the world Jones was protesting by ordering his people to commit “revolutionary suicide”? These inquiries require explanation, and this chapter sets out to answer these questions.
Black Religious Leaders in America
Before a discussion of Reverend Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple, an examination of prominent black religious figures is warranted, for Jones’ ideas came from a long ancestry of radical political and social thought. Although many people and institutions influenced Jones’ thoughts and actions, this section will focus on Jones’ contemporaries and immediate predecessors. Father Divine, “Sweet” Daddy Grace, and Bishop Smallwood Williams, three such men who led idealistic denominations in the early part of the twentieth century, perhaps served as influential forces on Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.
Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement, which rose to prominence in the 1930s, shared similarities with the Temple. Like Jones, Father Divine (most likely born George Baker, although he denied this charge) envisioned a multiracial movement in which everyone could participate. Father Divine was African American, but a “sprinkling of whites” joined his church. He offered a better today for his congregation, unlike other pastors who promised their congregation a better future only in the afterlife. For some church-goers, this promise of a better afterlife was simply not enough to satisfy them. Father Divine also “claimed to be God” who could cure disease and even bring people back from the dead, according to his people. Jones would also make these claims some decades later to his Peoples Temple. Historian Jill Watts, author of God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story, writes that Father Divine’s appeal “rested basically on the … emotional impact of his sermons. He had complete control over his followers, forcing them to break family ties, practice celibacy, and surrender their savings to his ministry.” In these ways—the multiculturalism of the congregation, the promise of a better here-and-now, and the church under the rule of one controlling charismatic leader claiming to be a deity—would very much be emulated by Jones two decades later.
In the 1950s, Jones attempted to take over Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement. He met with Father Divine and his wife, known as Mother Divine, to discuss the tenets and ideas that their respective churches shared, as well as the possibility of Jones taking over the Divines’ movement. After Jones failed to acquire Father Divine’s church, he “deluged Peace Mission members with letters and fliers encouraging them to abandon the Peace Mission and join his People’s [Peoples] Temple,” even sending a bus “equipped with loudspeakers blaring his messages” through Philadelphia, where many Peace Mission members resided. Jones’ attempts were unsuccessful, and after Father Divine’s death in 1965, Mother Divine continued to operate the church under the Divine name.
The United House of Prayer, led by “Sweet” Daddy Grace (Bishop Charles Emmanuel Grace) also shares similarities to Peoples Temple. Daddy Grace, who began preaching in 1925, was said to be of African American and Portuguese heritage, tying him to minority groups in the United States. Like Jones, Daddy Grace claimed to have “chose[n] to lead the Negroes, lowly in state though they are, rather than the members of a more privileged racial group.” Jones also had a fondness for African Americans and took great interest in their struggles in American society. In Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer, “God appears to be all but forgotten,” as “the beliefs boil down to a worship of Daddy Grace.” Similarly, Jones abandoned the idea of God and became the sole head of Peoples Temple, even openly mocking religion once the group reached Jonestown, in the late 1970s.
A third church leader was Bishop Smallwood Williams, founder of the Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ World Wide, Inc. in 1957. Like Jones, Williams was an advocate for civil rights and used the church as a vehicle to achieve his goals. Clarence Taylor, author of Black Religious Intellectuals: The Fight for Equality from Jim Crow to the 21st Century, writes that Williams “promoted a brand of Afro-Christian liberalism that blended left-of-center politics and Pentecostal religious notions.” Bishop Williams “was unique among black Pentecostal preachers. Central to his brand of Pentecostalism was a strong political message advocating racial and social justice and the reworking of the political consciousness of Americans.” These statements could have described Jones’ message in Peoples Temple, for Jones also began as a Pentecostal preacher striving to achieve social change in the United States, particularly for African Americans.
Like Father Divine, “Sweet” Daddy Grace, and Bishop Smallwood Williams, Jones believed in the idea of forming a radical church that would defy its place and time in American society. These men concerned themselves with the affairs of African Americans and the underprivileged. They used their charisma to gain groups of loyal followers, some of whom believed their chosen leader was God or a god-like figure. This notion cemented the ties between the leaders and the followers, a relationship which could easily become unbalanced and dangerous. Most of these leaders used their power for good. Jones used his influence to lead his people to destruction.
Racial Tension and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana
James Warren Jones was born in Crete, Indiana on May 13, 1931. Several factors may have led to the creation of Peoples Temple and set it on its apocalyptic course, but the strong presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana was particularly important in shaping Jones’ personal ideology. The racism and racial tension in Indiana also affected members of Peoples Temple.
Before Jones was born, the Ku Klux Klan had established itself as a major force in the Midwest. The highest concentration of Ku Klux Klan members resided in Indiana during the early decades of the twentieth century. Approximately 250,000 men and women joined the anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish group, and it is estimated Klansmen comprised 23% of the white adult male population in the city of Evansville, where the Klan first established itself in the state in 1921. These large numbers of Klansmen majorly impacted life in Indiana, which surely influenced the future leader of Peoples Temple.
Known for perpetuating violent acts against its perceived enemies, the Klan principally targeted African Americans. Hiram Wesley Evans, the Klan’s second Imperial Wizard, alleged in 1924, “The Negro is simply racially incapable of understanding, sharing, or contributing to Americanism.” Klansmen did not see African Americans as equals to whites; therefore, African Americans were a threat to whites. However, unlike the Southern chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, the Midwest Klansmen were less violent, described by historian Richard K. Tucker as “flag-waving” nativists. He writes that these Klansmen were a “mix of nineteenth-century Know-Nothing [nativists], fueled by a nationalistic fervor left over from World War I.” Tucker claims that their “weapons were social and economic intimidation, boycotts, slanderous propaganda and rumor, awesome spectacles, vigilante patrols, and—above all—the ballot box.”
The ballot box was indeed where the Klan exerted its power. The Ku Klux Klan identified with the Republicans in Indiana and gained popular support in the 1924 election. “The order’s basic message was that average white Protestants were under attack,” historian Leonard J. Moore writes. “Their values and traditions were being undermined, their vision of America’s national purpose and social order appeared to be threatened, and their ability to shape the course of public affairs seemed to have diminished.” To promote their ideology, the group released a weekly newspaper, The Fiery Cross. An article written in 1927 for the New Republic agreed that the Ku Klux Klan was a group not looking to make change, but rather to preserve the status quo, which they feared was disappearing in the rapidly changing nation. These perceived revolutions included the participation of blacks, Catholics, and Jews in politics. The Klansmen feared that these groups would enact political and social change that would threaten the white American Protestant’s way of life.
The Indiana Klan also obtained more power during the early 1920s, expanding to Indianapolis in 1922 under the direction of Grand Dragon David Curtis (“D.C.”) Stephenson, whose influence was such that at one point he claimed, “I am the law in Indiana.” He even had presidential aspirations. Stephenson was a powerful figurehead of the Klan in Indiana until he was tried and convicted for the abduction, rape, and murder of the white Madge Oberholtzer. The court’s sentences ended Stephenson’s political career and presidential hopes, and his conviction discredited the Klan in Indianapolis.
Edward L. Jackson, another influential member of the Ku Klux Klan, rose to power in Indianapolis in the mid-1920s. Jackson, a former Indiana Secretary of State, served as governor from 1924 to 1929. His political career ended after he was investigated and tried on bribery charges. He was not found guilty – the statute of limitations had run out on his alleged crimes – but these charges show that prominent members of the Indiana Klan demonstrated corruption within the organization and became a major source of distrust for some citizens. Among these skeptical citizens was a young Jim Jones.
Issues concerning the Ku Klux Klan also directly affected Jones’ home life. Conflicting reports about whether his father belonged to the Klan exist in historical accounts. According to Harrison, Jones asserted that his father, “Big Jim,” was a member of the Klan. An FAQ for this site disputes this claim: “Jones sometimes talked about the struggles he faced as a youth—and finally breaking away from his father—because of the latter’s association with the Ku Klux Klan. ‘My father was a Ku Klux Klan bandit, but I’m the greatest humanitarian, the greatest savior that this universe has ever known,’ he said in 1973. None of these claims was true.” Furthermore, as David Chidester writes, Jones’ father “was recalled by Jim Jones as having been active in the Ku Klux Klan … but, while his father may have been sympathetic with the aims of the Klan, no evidence of his membership exists.” Whether or not Jones’ father was a member of the Klan did not seem to make much of a difference to his followers. More importantly, the Peoples Temple congregation believed Jones had overcome an oppressive upbringing by a Klansman and had somehow managed to construct a multiracial denomination.
Jones also told his followers a tale regarding a conflict with his father during Jones’ young adulthood. Jones reminisced, “Feeling as an outcast, I’d early developed a sensitivity for the problems of blacks. I brought the only black young man in the town home and my dad said that he could not come in and I said, ‘Then I shan’t,’ and I did not see my dad for many years.” This recollection again shows Jones’ attempts to relate to and show empathy for the African Americans he recruited for his church.
Jones and Multiracialism
However, Jones actually lived his multiracial dream. He and his wife, Marceline Jones, adopted an African American child, the first white family in Indiana to do so. This act added credibility to Jones’ message of racial harmony and integration. Jim Jones, Jr., a former Peoples Temple member and an adopted son of the Jones’, recalls,
Jim and Marceline actually went to adopt a Caucasian child. The story goes that I was crying real loud and it drew attention for Marceline to come over, and once she picked me up, I stopped crying. My family was a template of a rainbow family. We had an African American, we had two American Asian and we had his natural son, homemade.
Jones’ dream of a multiracial church was finally realized after he broke away from the non-integrationist Methodist Church and started his own church, which he called Peoples Temple. The creation of this congregation was a ground-breaking achievement, particularly in the conservative state of Indiana. “With few exceptions, blacks and whites did not share church pews,” write Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs in Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. The authors describe the racial tension that persisted into the 1950s in Indiana, recalling the segregation of schools and neighborhoods, and the lack of equal opportunities for employment. Several people interviewed for the PBS documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple relay the importance of the integrated church:
June Cordell, Relative of Peoples Temple Member: It didn’t make no difference what color you were. It was everybody welcome there in that church and he made it very plain from the platform.
Eugene Cordell, Relative of Peoples Temple Member: We had some people that disagreed with Jimmy. They got up in the audience and they said they disagreed with him. They did not like this integration part of the services. We did ask people to leave the church one night because of that.
Rev. Garnett Day, Minister: Jim was breaking new ground in race relations at a time when the ground was still pretty hard against that. Jim Jones was hated and despised by some people, particularly in the white community.
During the early years of his ministry, Jones seemed to truly “practice what he preached.” His achievements included creating a soup kitchen for the homeless, which fed hundreds of people every day. Additionally, Jones organized an employment assistance service in which church members helped the unemployed find work and gave them clothes to wear to job interviews. The author of an article appearing in the Indianapolis Star claimed, “The healing of America’s divide between blacks and whites was always at the core of Jones’ message, and Peoples Temple reflected that in the diversity of its congregation—a rarity then and even 30 years later.” In 1961, Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell appointed Jones to the city’s Human Rights Commission, which had been created to address racial problems in Indianapolis. Boswell later claimed that Jones helped “pressure store owners and theater managers to be more welcoming” of African American customers. Jones went on a thirteen-day hunger strike in 1959, drinking only “skim milk … in his effort against discrimination in Indianapolis.” The Jones family claimed that the Reverend lost 25 pounds. Two years later, in an Indianapolis Times article titled “Race Relations Progress Cited,” Jones reported that “all but three of the 61 businesses here accused of racial discrimination have agreed to accept Negro customers.” Through these acts, Jones showed his desire for a more equal and just society, particularly for African Americans.
Not everyone supported Jones’ integrationist works. Because of their “rainbow family” and the progress Jones had made toward black rights in Indianapolis, the Jones family suffered harassment within the community. According to one report, a “middle-aged white woman” spat in Marceline Jones’ face and then on their African American infant son. Jones himself received a “slight concussion” after a white teenager struck him in the head with a milk bottle. Newspaper reporters such as Pat Williams Steward of the Indianapolis Recorder recognized Jones’ sincerity, writing in 1964, “Everyone in the civil rights field knows that Rev. Jones is 100 percent real in his beliefs and convictions.” Not everyone agreed with Jones’ push for racial equality, but his efforts did not go unrecognized.
Jones began to relate to minorities and the oppressed on a more personal level. According to the Jonestown Institute authors:
Jones identified with the African- and Native Americans in his congregations, and often described everyone in Peoples Temple—himself included—as part of the nation’s oppressed populations of blacks, browns, Indians, and Asians. To make his point—figurative as it was—he often described himself and everyone who followed him as “niggers” to distinguish themselves from those who have power and make the rules.
This statement shows how Jones was able to cultivate an “us versus them” mentality in Peoples Temple. Other times Jones claimed to be literally black, once saying in a sermon, “Some of you, you think you’re white, honey, but you’re just as black as I am.” Again, this shows Jones’ attempts to empathize with African Americans in his congregation by showing them that he understood their struggles and was struggling alongside with them.
Peoples Temple and the Move to California
However, the pressures of a multiracial church in Indiana became too great for Jones and his Peoples Temple. In 1965, the group decided to move from Indiana to California. Jonestown Institute managers Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore explain this decision in the PBS documentary “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple”:
Fielding McGehee, Relative of Peoples Temple Members: There had been pressures on him to leave Indianapolis. He thought that Indianapolis was too racist of a place for him to be, and he wanted to take his people out.
Rebecca Moore, Relative of Peoples Temple Members: California is perceived to be a very progressive state. This would be the place to implement the dream of racial equality. Not Indianapolis, which seems hopeless, but California, which seems to be the Promised Land.
Peoples Temple spent the next decade in California, establishing churches in Ukiah, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. “If Indianapolis represented the conservative heartland, then California signified the progressive frontier,” Rebecca Moore writes in Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. “This … suggested that Jim Jones was a political visionary who wanted the Temple to adopt a more radical stance than it had in Indianapolis, and perhaps even to become a player upon the world stage, like the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California.” Peoples Temple members became involved in politics in California, volunteering their services to liberal candidates. In 1975, the election of George Moscone as mayor of San Francisco was attributed in part to the efforts of Peoples Temple. Many of the programs supported by Peoples Temple and San Franciscan liberals echoed the goals of the Black Panther Party and their “’survival programs,’ which ‘contributed to the well-being of poor and working-class racial and ethnic minorities.’” These actions show the growing influence Peoples Temple had in California, often benefitting minorities, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.
Members of Peoples Temple also began to use Black Panther Party rhetoric, as it was “an available and appealing syntax of revolutionary social and political change,” write Duchess Harris and Adam John Waterman in their essay “To Die for the Peoples Temple: Religion and Revolution after Black Power.” They continue, “As members of the Temple used this rhetoric, they expanded upon it, challenged it, and appropriated its meaning for use in creative, provocative, and problematic ways. Ultimately, these rhetorical strategies helped the members of the Temple to work in a world in which the radical, political, and economic orders were being rapidly reshaped.” Jones “tapped some of the same sources of political and cultural identity that Huey Newton did, the same historical references to slavery as well as the more contemporary days of Jim Crow laws” in order to draw more people, both black and white, to Peoples Temple. Its political actions and more radical rhetoric in California show a transition from a private, insulated church to a more overtly activist organization participating in a wider, public sphere.
Anthony B. Pinn argues that as Peoples Temple moved away from traditional theological Christianity and toward humanist and atheist teachings, African American participation in the movement increased. Pinn recalls that African Americans had joined the Communist Party in large numbers in the 1920s, and that a great number of African Americans were quite liberal theologically and politically. Pinn gives the example of James Forman, a civil rights activist, “who rejected God and embraced human potential.” Pinn quotes Forman’s perspective on organized religion:
It is that leap of faith which I now refuse to make. I reject the existence of God. He is not all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere. He is not just or unjust because he does not exist. God is a myth; churches are just institutions designed to perpetuate the myth and thereby keep people in subjugation. When a people who are poor, suffering with disease and sickness, accept the fact that God has ordained for them to be this way—then they will never do anything about their human condition. In other words, the belief in a supreme being or God weakens the will of a people to change conditions themselves.
Forman’s quotation shows the connection between the push for civil rights and liberation from religion for some African Americans. By the 1970s, this shift in theological thinking became evident in Peoples Temple as humanism and even atheism became more accepted within the group. Jones capitalized on these changing ideologies within the African American community, pushing for equal rights in a public, secular setting.
Jones’ increasing radicalism and connection to the civil rights movement in 1976 became apparent with People Temple’s publication of the newsletter Peoples Forum. While early issues contain articles on “subjects as diverse as killer bees, Muhammed Ali, freedom of the press, and Jones hosting a TV show,” later editions are more radical, demonstrating Jones’ support for Huey Newton and providing information about the Black Panther Party. In late 1976 Peoples Forum covered a story about the FBI’s role in the death of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. The cover photo from a 1977 edition shows Jones and Newton shaking hands. Additionally, the October 1977 issue includes an advertisement imploring readers to donate to the Huey Newton Defense Fund. Peoples Forum exemplifies the increasing involvement Peoples Temple had in California with black rights leaders and racial issues.
Peoples Temple and the Move to Jonestown, Guyana
However, the amount of time Peoples Temple spent involved with California politics was short-lived. In the mid-1970s, Jim Jones and his people acquired land in the socialist republic South American country of Guyana. This land became the site of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known as Jonestown. Many members of the church moved from the United States to South America, each with his or her own reasons. “They feared that the IRS might freeze the Temple’s assets,” Rebecca Moore writes. “They worried that the results of a child custody battle might remove one of the children from the community. They responded to Jones’ prophecy that a fascist takeover was imminent in the United States.” For these reasons and others, the most committed members of Peoples Temple moved away from their homes in the United States, “believ[ing] they were not just deserting something worse but also moving to something better. They set the goal of creating a community without racism, in which all children would be free and equal.” Therefore, while there were many reasons for the migration, the main goal was to establish a church free from the perceived oppression of the United States—one where everyone could live in harmony undisturbed.
Still, even thousands of miles away from the “oppressive” United States, Jones continued to speak about the Ku Klux Klan and its actions in the United States. The majority, if not all, of what he told Peoples Temple members was untrue. In Jonestown in 1977, one year before the murder-suicides, Jones relayed the following to his people:
Jones: What about the fact the Ku Klux Klan has increased one hundred times in its membership in New York, till just a few months ago, it almost took over Attica.
Voices in congregation: Right.
Jones: If you read your newspaper, your TV, it almost took over Attica prison. They almost stormed in and killed all the Indians and blacks and Mexicans. Where? Not in Mississippi, I’m talking about New York State.
Congregation: Right, right. (Cheers and applause)
Jones: Then it’s the church’s duty. It’s the church’s duty to have a place of protection for its people. We’ve got a place to protect our people. If we have nuclear war, we got a cave. [You] Say, how did you find it? The spirit of the living God showed it right down in the deep of the earth. We got one out in the west coast, you can’t find any end in it. Got water and food down there for nuclear war. But honey, there’s things worse than nuclear war.
The King Alfred Plan
In addition to the perceived threat posed by the Ku Klux Klan in America, Jones claimed the United States government intended to remove all African Americans from society within six months. “They got plans… There’s a plan already laid aside to put you into gas chambers. It’s called the King Alfred Plan,” Jones claimed in 1972. The following year, Jones pinpointed the United States government as the perpetrator of this plan: “We have this discussion of the King Alfred Plan here, we have the discussion … that the past cabinet just approved, which will be the total annihilation of the black race.” In a sermon recorded in Philadelphia in 1977, Jones tells Peoples Temple members where he got this information about the concentration camps:
I heard it from the heads of the government of the United States today, ‘cause I just come in from Washington, just flew in on the plane from the conference with the top notch leaders. I listen to them talk about planned takeovers … Task force warns nation to get ready for riots and to get ready for martial law and to get ready for concentration camps… Get ready for identification marks to be put on your body and identification marks, even if necessary tattooed.
Jones implored his followers to “go home and read … Executive Order 11490 and 11647. You go home and read it.” He continued, “Right now, they’re preparing to set up a dictatorship—it’s already written into law—that will give the president power to move people wherever he wants to, to put them in concentration camps, to take over every office, over every factory. He’ll put serial numbers and a mark of the beast right on you. You’ll not be anymore a person, you’ll be a number. And every black and brown and poor white will be done away with.” These fears of concentration camps echoed the actions of Nazis only decades earlier and resonated with Peoples Temple members. “Racist genocide is not unknown and will be done again,” Jones told his followers. Jones, however, would be safe from this plan, as he claimed he was too “light-complected” to be killed, explaining in one sermon that “if you kill a light-complected person, you’re in trouble,” even though he had earlier made claims that “poor white[s]” would be taken to these camps as well. Again, Jones’ increasing paranoia was evident, as he continued to try to convince his followers that living in the United States would be too dangerous for almost anyone in the congregation.
The King Alfred Plan scared many members of Peoples Temple. Jones became the savior of the group, telling his followers in a sermon given in August 1973, “[A] spiritual wickedness in high places is going to come to take [minorities] and put them in jails. Right now, they’re trying to get an executive order passed that will empower the president of this United States to put people in concentration camps without one consultation with Congress. Now it won’t happen to you, but you’ve got to cooperate with me. You want to be free? Then cooperate with me.” Statements such as these show Jones’ desire to control Peoples Temple members’ emotions and to act as their protector.
Laura Johnston Kohl, a former Peoples Temple member, recalls, “We had no other radio or T.V. or communication with parents or any kind of … update that could show us … that there’s a whole other thing going on besides what Jim was interpreting for us.” The members of Peoples Temple had little choice but to believe what their leader was telling them about the condition of the United States, particularly for African Americans. The idea of concentration camps forming in the United States did not seem that far-fetched, particularly because of the nation’s treatment of communists. The McCarran Act of 1950 allowed federal authorities to “round up subversives” and other undesirables, much like in Nazi Germany, so the idea that a program to put African Americans or other minorities in danger in the United States did not seem inconceivable to Peoples Temple members. However, the King Alfred Plan was not based in truth. It was an invention of John A. Williams in his novel The Man Who Cried I Am, published in 1967. Without access to news coming from the United States to Jonestown, many Peoples Temple members believed Jones when he spoke of the King Alfred Plan and its implications for African Americans and “subversives.”
“Revolutionary Suicide” and the End of Peoples Temple
The end of Jonestown was also influenced by the African American struggle. Throughout Peoples Temple’s years in California, Jones used Black Panther Party rhetoric to sway his followers toward his radical beliefs. Jones alleged that “American society was so racist, so capitalistic, so fascistic, and so corrupt,” that there would be no returning to it without revolution. On November 18th, 1978, Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid. He referred to this act as one of “revolutionary suicide,” a term borrowed from Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton. Newton’s definition of “revolutionary suicide” is as follows:
We say that if we must die, then we will die the death of a revolutionary suicide. The revolutionary suicide that says that if I am put down, if I am driven out, I refuse to be swept out with a broom. I would much rather be driven out with a stick, because with the broom, when I am driven out, it will humiliate me and I will lose my self-respect. But if I am driven out with the stick, then at least I can remain with the dignity of a man and die the death of a man, rather than die the death of a dog. Of course, our real desire is to live, but we will not be cowed, we will not be intimidated.
Jones used similar ideas when he implored his congregation to drink from the vat of cyanide, asking that his people “die with a degree of dignity.” However, Rebecca Moore writes that Jones “distorted the original meaning of revolutionary suicide by emphasizing death rather than revolution. Martyrdom, rather than revolution, was Jones’ goal.” Huey Newton’s message was one of strength and perseverance: He knew that his actions as a revolutionary may lead to death, but he hoped others would carry on the message. In his book Revolutionary Suicide, Newton explains, “Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.” Newton used Black Panther Party member Bobby Hutton, a man gunned down by the police, as an example of revolutionary suicide. Even though “his hands [were] lifted in surrender,” he was “killed while he was involved in a movement to overthrow the white racist establishment.” Newton urged revolutionaries to “go down fighting” rather than committing suicide. Therefore, Newton’s definition of revolutionary suicide took on a defensive posture rather than the pre-emptive definition Jones would endorse in the final years of Peoples Temple’s existence.
Jones took Newton’s words about revolutionary suicide to mean one should literally commit suicide when signs of trouble or danger arise. For Jones, this “revolutionary” act of death was a final form of protest, in this case, against racism, capitalism, and those who “bad-mouthed” Peoples Temple. Jones spread his twisted understanding of Newton’s revolutionary suicide to his followers, toying with the idea of mass suicide as a form of protest in Peoples Temple for many years. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Jones often pressed his congregation to agree to die for him and his fight against the oppressive United States. He held suicide drills to test the members’ loyalty in preparation for emergency situations that he termed “white nights.” Former Peoples Temple member Edith Roller recalls one of these “white nights” in a journal entry dated February 16th, 1978, nine months before the murder-suicides:
At length Jim [Jones] stated that the political situation showed no signs of clearing up and that we had no alternative but revolutionary suicide. He had already given instructions to make the necessary arrangements. All would be given a potion, juice combined with a potent poison. After taking it, we would die painlessly in about 45 minutes. Those who were leaders and brave would take it last. He would be the last to die and would make sure all were dead. Lines were formed as a container with the potion in it with cups was brought in by the medical staff. Jim said only a small amount was necessary. The seniors were allowed to be seated and be served first. At the beginning those who had reservations were allowed to express them, but those who did were required to be first. As far as I could see once the procession started, very, very few made any protest. A few questions were asked, such as an inquiry about those in the nursery. Jim said they had already been taken care of.
These “white nights” show Jones’ plans for the total annihilation of Peoples Temple months before Peoples Temple imploded in November. The final “white night,” which Jones also referred to as the “last-stand plan,” echoing Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s last stand, a “final, suicidal attack” against Native Americans in 1876, would be one that few Peoples Temple members would survive.
On November 18, 1978, Peoples Temple members murdered visiting U.S. Representative Leo Ryan (D-California) and members of his congressional entourage as the politician attempted to leave Jonestown with more than a dozen Temple defectors. After this violent act at the Port Kaituma airstrip, suicide seemed to be the only option for many members of Peoples Temple. Return to the United States would be a hopeless endeavor, according to Jones, for the congregation would be persecuted, prosecuted, and possibly thrown into government-sponsored concentration camps as per the (fictional) King Alfred Plan. Therefore, “revolutionary suicide” appeared to be the answer to Peoples Temple’s problems.
However, Jones’ ideas about mass “revolutionary suicide” more closely resembled Newton’s definition of “reactionary suicide.” In his memoir, Newton contrasts the two forms of suicide by using the example of the poverty-stricken character Marmeladov in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Using this character as a model, Newton claims reactionary suicide occurs when “the beggar is totally demeaned, his dignity lost. Finally, bereft of self-respect, immobilized by fear and despair, he sinks into self-murder. This is reactionary suicide.” Based on Huey Newton’s definitions of revolutionary and reactionary suicide, it can be argued that Jones and his followers actually committed the latter. Rather than dying at the hands of others with the hope that others would carry on the message afterwards, Temple members took their own lives at the insistence of Jones and his protest against the United States. Ultimately, 909 members of Peoples Temple would drink the poisoned Flavor-Aid – some by choice, some by force – and would die in Jonestown on November 18th, 1978 believing they had committed revolutionary suicide for a cause with no solution.
Conclusion and Analysis
In the end, neither black religious thinkers, nor the Ku Klux Klan, nor the Black Panther Party caused the collapse of Peoples Temple. However, these groups did play a role in the shaping of the organization. Black religious leaders such as Father Divine, “Sweet” Daddy Grace, and Bishop Smallwood Williams had similar ideas about racial harmony and social justice that they enacted in their congregations. Furthermore, Jones was greatly influenced by the political power and presence of the Klan in Indiana during his childhood and early adulthood. Seeing the racism and racial divide in Indiana, as evidenced by the Klan’s political power and through personal instances of racism with his father, Jones created a multiracial church and family in response. The sympathy Jones had for African Americans and other minorities would persist throughout Peoples Temple’s existence through his sermons and actions. By convincing his congregation that the United States intended its minorities harm, he kept them loyal to Peoples Temple and convinced them that a return to the United States was impossible. Toward the end of Peoples Temple’s existence, Jones took from Huey Newton’s ideas about “revolutionary suicide” and made them his own, albeit as a distortion of Newton’s original intent.
In many ways, Peoples Temple resembled a black church from start to finish. Jones’ preaching style and dream of multiracialism in his congregation attracted many African Americans in Indianapolis in the 1950s as he fostered a sense of community and equality for his members. When Peoples Temple moved to California in the mid-1960s, the congregation became more involved in politics, particularly fighting for causes benefitting African Americans and other minority groups. Jones and his followers used Black Panther Party rhetoric, showing their ties to the African American struggle in the United States. The move to Guyana cemented Peoples Temple as a black church, as African Americans remained the majority of the congregation and the fight continued to protect minorities. Jones continued to display his radical racial ideas and mostly unwarranted fears about the Ku Klux Klan and the King Alfred Plan in the United States. The utopian commune of Jonestown was meant to be a safe haven for Jones’ followers and the Reverend was to be their savior from the perceived oppression of the United States. Instead, the congregation committed what Jones termed “revolutionary suicide.” The multiracial experiment in Jonestown failed, but evidence for Jones’ radical ideology concerning the protection of minorities persisted from start until the very end.
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(This article is adapted from a chapter in Catherine Abbott’s master’s thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Catherine Abbott is a regular contributor to this site. Her full collection of articles is here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)