Jonestown: In the Prison of History Not Personally Lived
(Editor’s note: The following article is adapted from a student paper for a class assignment at DeVry University. Because of Chris Lewis Jr.’s relationship with the Temple – he is the son of Temple member Chris Lewis – this appears in our Reflections section instead. His abstract appears as a separate article as well.)
Despite all the hyperbole presented on the tragedy in Jonestown, there is one irrefutable fact that everyone can agree upon: On November 18, 1978 more than nine hundred children, women and men, almost all American citizens – and all-peace loving people of faith, suffered unnatural deaths in a remote Guyanese jungle in South America, the single most devastating loss of American lives in modern history until September 11, 2001. All accounts afterwards, from personal to congressional, are refutable and questionable at best and deserve alternative considerations to fully memorialize the lives that were lost and the lives of surviving family members and friends. Notwithstanding the numerous books, newspaper and magazine articles and commentaries on the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, it is my contention and belief that much of the accepted literature on the subject is narrow in scope and depth and that a broader perspective is necessary to fully understand this American tragedy and the hyperbole surrounding it.
I have to admit that I have a personal interest invested in researching this subject and despite my intentions to remain objective, I feel compelled to apologize in advance, if at any time my presentation of this material comes across jaded or subjective. After all, I am a survivor of seven immediate family members, and over 900 extended family members who died, either as Jonestown victims, or as a result of their direct affiliation with Peoples Temple.
The first to pass was my father, Chris Lewis, Sr., who was executed in a San Francisco alley, and who was a chief bodyguard for Jim Jones and the Temple in the years before the church’s exodus to Guyana. The next five, my sister (Dana Lewis) and my cousins (Eric, Jair, Shawn and Tarik Baker) all died in Jonestown. Last, but certainly not least, was my adored aunt, Barbara S. Baker, who raised me since I was six years old in Pomona, California, and who recently passed a few months ago. Although she technically did not die when everyone else did, I name her among this list because a part of her did die those many years ago when she lost her brother, her niece, and her four sons. Ironically, only because she had gotten sick when she was supposed to accompany her sons and my sister to Guyana, did she escape those tragic events of 1978.
Peoples Temple was started in the late 1950’s in Indiana by Jim Jones. He was reportedly a self-described socialist who believed in the equality of man. He started off as a student pastor at a church in Indianapolis but soon left because he wanted to allow African Americans into his congregation but was not allowed to. (Wessinger, 2000). Jim Jones opened the doors to his first Peoples Temple in a mixed Indianapolis neighborhood in 1956 and was subsequently acknowledged as part of the Pentecostal denomination which led to his joining with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1959 and renaming of his church to Peoples Temple Full Gospel Christian Church. (Wessinger, 2000). In later years his socialist ideals and his belief in the church as a medium to espouse his communist ideals and further his social goals was captured in a biographical recording made by the Temple and recovered from Jonestown by the FBI:
We’ve got to get this question settled here, because I hear some of this bullshit still preached from this pulpit, that man’s born in sin. Man, the only sins you’re born in, is the society, the kind of community you live in. If you’re born in a socialist community, then you’re not born in sin. If you’re born in this church, this socialist revolution, you’re not born in sin. If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin. (Q 1053-Part 4).
As a result of the racial climate in the Midwest, where segregation was still very much alive, as was the Ku Klux Klan, and his socialist teachings at the pulpit, Jim Jones decided to move and extend his church to California. “Jones’ first move was to relocate his followers to the Northern California community of Redwood Valley, located a few miles from the county seat, Ukiah” (Tracy, 1978). A few hundred people, mainly African Americans, made the journey with him in pursuit of equality and a “promised land” described in so many sermons by Jones himself. Ironically, in a sense of the phrase, it was tantamount to jumping out of the frying pan into the flame as reflected in an anonymous article written by a Redwood Valley resident for the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple website:
Jim Jones brought some of the very first blacks to the county. My family gave Jones and the people with him a lot of credit for effectively integrating a fairly homogenous – that is, all white – part of California. But it was a very redneck place, and there were no shortages of nasty stories and comments about “Jim Jones and his niggers.” For my family, this type of thinking – born in vicious racism and ignorance – was abhorrent. We saw and applauded the good side of the Temple: Jim Jones was giving inner city kids a second chance in a new environment, and that environment received the opportunity to experience and learn about racial diversity. And the kids themselves were fantastic – kind, nice, studious – maybe a bit on the quiet and private side, but good kids who were making the best of their opportunity. So when we’d hear rumors – from the rednecks – about how Jim Jones claimed to be God, and about staged assassinations and resurrections of himself at the church, we dismissed them as the gossipy ravings of ignorant bigots.
It is reported that by late 1966, Jones had attracted approximately 100-150 new church members who were mostly white and young, and that attendance at the Redwood Valley Temple had sprang up from five hundred in its humble beginnings to approximately two thousand (Tracy, 1978). But Jones’ calling was drawing him forth to yet another exodus to a much larger city: San Francisco.
In “The Seduction of San Francisco,” Jeanie Kasindorf wrote:
San Francisco was the perfect city for Jim Jones. For the politics of San Francisco are a unique blend of old-fashioned ward politics, where black ministers are the men politicians count on to deliver votes, combined with power-to-the-people slogans left over from the sixties. Jim Jones had the slogans. And Jim Jones had the people. (Kasindorf, 1978)
Jim Jones needed a bigger stage to further his melodrama, and he found it in the streets of San Francisco which was a hotbed of political and social activism. In the social and political game of chess he was thus far just a rook, and he realized an opportunity to find and use the necessary pawns needed to sacrifice themselves and exalt him to position of king on this chessboard. From 1971 to 1977 he maneuvered himself perfectly, weaving his way through the fabrics of American society, war-torn and worn-down from decades of physical and spiritual battle, amongst people and citizens who only wanted to live harmoniously and in peace. First, he walked amongst the downtrodden and chose amongst them princes and princesses, savvy enough and still strong enough, though psychologically and physically deprived enough, to need and desire a “savior” such as he, to raise them from the ashes, above the rest, and “heal” them of their depravities, illnesses, and weaknesses, as shining examples of his “healing powers.”
One such example was my father, Chris Lewis, Sr. who was exemplified as persona non grata to the “establishment,” but comrade-in-arms to the people. One of the best descriptions I found of this union was in Tim Reiterman’s book Raven:
Jones only dabbled in this bare-knuckles world, and usually with stand-ins. Chris Lewis was Jones’ most notorious second in the ghetto – the perfect Temple antihero, a black Robin Hood with the physical equipment of Sonny Liston. He was a likable freewheeling street person when he was in good humor; but he was as unpredictable as a bleeding bull. The six-foot-two, 220-pounder had earned his street scars, smarts and rap-sheet on the heroin-fencing-burglary circuit. (Reiterman, 1982)
Reiterman goes on to describe the dynamics of my father’s role as one in which “he wore many hats for Jones – bodyguard, chief enforcer and reformed junkie” and asserts that he was a “special case” whom Jones admired despite his “independent spirit” and even though he was prone to do “pretty much what he pleased” in contrast to what Jones required from the rest of his followers. Nonetheless, my father’s loyalty and devotion to Jim Jones was solidified after an event in November of 1973 wherein my father was arrested for, and later acquitted of, the murder of a member of the Black Liberation Army during a confrontation at a Western Addition Project Area Committee (WAPAC) meeting. (Reiterman, 1982). My father was many things – gangster, pimp, heroin addict, community activist – but for Jim Jones, he was everything he needed in a ghetto prince to manipulate the community and gather his flock.
With the gathering of this flock Jones turned his attention and focus on the political landscape of the city.
From 1971 to 1977 Jim Jones answered the age-old political question: Who can you buy with the right number of people? In San Francisco last week the answer was clear: the Mayor. The District Attorney. The city’s most powerful black politician, Assemblyman Willie Brown. And along with Brown, the voice of the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. (Kasindorf, 1982)
During these years and up until his hasty exodus to Guyana in 1977 his list of political, organizational, and city-official supporters was lengthy and nothing to be trivialized:
During this time, and with enough political backing to run the city, Jones settled on a modest appointment as Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. Sometime around the summer of 1977, at the height and pinnacle of Jones’s “exalting,” and amid impending reports and allegations of crimes being committed by Jim Jones against his flock, he and hundreds of Temple members fled to Guyana to a “promised land” that would prove to be their ultimate demise.
The rest, as they say, is history. But it is a history that has been convoluted and muddled by truths, half- truths, and outright lies, a history that I, and countless others, have been imprisoned by but have not lived personally. For those that did, those survivors and family members of Jonestown, this history has showed little mercy, little empathy, and no accountability. We as a society have chosen the easy route of laying the blame on the shoulders of one man, who, without his words and his guile, posed no real threat to anybody, but who was empowered by a nation. We as a society had the audacity to turn a blind eye as this little man manipulated, molested, battered and murdered over 900 of our citizens – our family – 73% of whom were women, children and elderly (and this is just a rough estimate). We, as a society, assuage our guilt and our shame by labeling this little man a leader and his murder of innocents a “mass suicide” in an attempt to cover up our complicity in this and other tragedies world-wide. And we call ourselves a Super Power.
Wake up, America! Jim Jones was a personification of countless leaders worldwide. He is the personification of our very own nation’s leaders in history, discounting a minority like the Kennedys and our present leader. He is a personification of you and me. Jim Jones alone did not murder those innocent people. He alone did not murder my father, my sister, my cousins, and my auntie. We did.
I recently had to present a brief speech on my topic for this paper before a class of my peers and now have to make an apology to them and some of the male survivors of Jonestown whom I ridiculed. Emotionally charged, I had the audacity to call some of those men cowards for their failure to attempt to protect those people in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. Later, in a phone conversation with one Peoples Temple member, Janet “Grammaw” Shular, I was quickly put in check for these words. I do not have enough evidence to lay such blame on the men, nor was I there in that time. How can anyone say in retrospect what should have or should not have been done when many of us, in this day and age, and as men, still personify Jim Jones in our manipulations of and failure to protect our women, children and elderly?
I have spent the majority of my life in and out of correctional institutions, tattooed up, at six-foot-three, 220 pounds, with my chest poked out, validating by toughness and manhood by my affiliation with gangs, perpetuating violence against the innocents of my community, and failing to protect the women, children, and elderly. And I called myself a man. Boy, am I not an oxy-moron?! (Thank you, “Grammaw”).
My heart and soul weep for the family, immediate and extended, that I lost before, on, and after November 18, 1978. My heart and soul weep for the family that we lost on September 11, 2001. My heart and soul weep for the families that we have lost across the globe due to atrocities suffered at the hands of egotistical and self-serving maniacs who rule our governments, our tribes, our societies, our communities, and our homes. My heart and soul weep, and will continue to weep, as long as WE, the human race, continue to allow ourselves to be led and directed into mass destruction by those who do not understand what community means. What family means.
The importance of the history of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple is necessary only to the extent that it invariably paints a clear picture of the movement’s innocent and humble beginnings. The story that followed is less innocent, humble, or clear, which is why this paper took on a more compulsory, subjective, and personal perspective. I don’t believe a research paper should be relegated to just an informational modus operandi, absent the aforementioned characteristics, solely to serve a majority’s desire for collective validation. This would be tantamount to minority oppression of voice, spirit and sentiment which is irreconcilable, not only to the Peoples Temple vision, but to our very own democratic principles in America. I believe that a clear and concise understanding of the spirit and principles upon which Peoples Temple was founded is necessary for us to fully appreciate the sacrifices made by its members, both alive and dead.
In my research into Jim Jones and Peoples Temple I have learned many things. The foremost is that, though Jim Jones-the man-is dead and gone, the spirit of Peoples Temple is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of its survivors and families. It is through this spirit that I am alive and free today. It is through this spirit that we are enjoying the blessing of the first minority president of this great nation. It is through this spirit that we are healed. It is through this spirit that we are forgiven. It is the spirit of change and hope. The spirit of acceptance. The spirit of Life. The spirit of Love.
A sign that hung in the pavilion of Jonestown read: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” I do contend that this is another irrefutable truth to this story. So I implore you, let us not forget. Let us remember!
Committee of Foreign Affairs U.S. House of Representatives. (1979, May 15). Report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee of Foreign Affairs U.S. House of Representatives. In The Assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown Tragedy. Symposium conducted at U.S. House of Representatives, Washington D.C. Abstract retrieved from http://www.freedomofmind.com/resourcecenter/groups/p/peoplestemple/.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1978, December 13). Tape recovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. In Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project: Transcripts (tape Q 1053 Part 4). Retrieved from
Kahalas, L. E. (1998). Snake Dance: Unraveling the Mysteries of Jonestown. New York: Red Robin Press.
Kasindorf, J. (1978, December 18). “The Seduction of San Francisco.” New West.
Kohl, L. J. (2010). Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look. Bloomington, Indiana: IUniverse.
Melton, J. G. (1990). The Peoples Temple and Jim Jones: Broadening Our Perspective (J. G. Melton, Ed.). New York: Garland.
Moore, R., McGehee, F. M., III., Parker, E., & Wettendorff, R. (n.d.). Alternative Consideration of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/.
Reiterman, T., & Jacobs, J. (1982). Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Penguin Group.
Thrash, C. H., & Towne, M. K. (1995). The Onliest One Alive: Surviving Jonestown, Guyana. Minnesota: Marian K. Towne.
Tracy, P. (1978, December 18). “Jim Jones: The Making of a Madman.” New West.
Wessinger, C. (2000). How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. New York: Seven Bridge Press.