Peoples Temple Members as “Niggers”

Jim Jones was a white man, but he led a congregation that was overwhelmingly black, especially during the mid-1970s when the Temple claimed most of its membership from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Part of his attraction for black audiences was that he would use language with which they were all-too familiar from their everyday lives but that would not sit well in white churches – or even in most black churches. That included the taking racial epithets – especially the word “nigger” – and turning them on their heads, turning them into badges of honor.

Indeed, Jones went so far as to describe himself and everyone who followed him – the minority of whites, the handfuls of Latins and Asians – as “niggers.” It was how they distinguished themselves from those who have power and make the rules.

“Oh, yes, you’re a nigger,” he said in an address delivered in Philadelphia in 1973.  “I’m a nigger.… I don’t care if you’re an Italian nigger, or you’re Jewish or an Indian, the only people that’re getting anything in this country are the people that got the money, baby.”

Upwards of 25 recorded sermons bear this out, ranging from Q 1057-5 from Los Angeles and Q 1054-2 in Redwood Valley in 1972, to Q 969 in San Francisco in 1976, and Q 987 back in Philadelphia in early 1977.

This is not to say that Jones didn’t understand the racism behind the word. He just knew how to convert the pain that it caused into a source of pride. Consider what he said about his adopted black son, Jim Jones, Jr., during a sermon from late 1974.

They used to send him home crying when they’d spit on him or something or call that word “nigger.” He said that word hurt. And so I turned that word around in my home, and I made it the proudest word for the chosen people. I said, yes we’re niggers and we’re proud. … The last time little Jim was called “nigger,” he said, sticks and stones may break my bones, but you’re certainly not going to hurt me with that word, because that’s the best word in the world.

It was not the only reason he used the word, though. Depending upon his mood – or just as likely, his perception of how an address was being received at the moment – he would call it out to shock his congregants out of their apathy. Judging from the applause and cheers that followed, the tactic worked.

As with other pieces of Temple history, though, the term turned dark when it was used in Jonestown. There – with Jones’ blessing – it reverted to a stereotype, but it was one the community used as a weapon to be used in resisting their enemies. Any attacks upon them – whether it was countering Guyanese authorities trying to serve papers against them, protesting an adverse decision by the government on licensing their doctor or their school, or an actual physical assault – should be met with the response of “crazy niggers.” The residents answered in kind. “I would take my cutlass and go to the front lines and fight,” Erris Morrison wrote in answer to the question of what they would do on the final White Night. “if they catch me I would make them kill me, by fighting, and that means being a crazy nigger.”