Because of my ongoing interest in Peoples Temple, I decided to attend the press conference that Reverend Jynona Norwood held on February 28, 2011. A friend warned me that I might be the only white person there. Although that was a bit intimidating, I summoned my courage and went.
I took the bus to Evergreen cemetery, then walked down the street quickly for I was running late. Several news vans drove by me. A man in a truck stopped. “Is this where they are going to have the press conference?”
“Yes, where all the cars are.”
He started to complain that Jones’ name should not be on the memorial. I stayed quiet.
I walked to the grave. Before I did, I prayed that everything would go okay.
As I walked towards the grave, I took out a notebook and my iPhone to take notes. A man approached me. “Which organization are you with?”
I told him I have a blog and that I’m a Mills alum. I mentioned Barbara Lee, a member of Congress, a black woman, a Mills alum and a supporter of Norwood’s memorial. He seemed okay with me being there, so I took my place with the other reporters. One of them I recognized as Vic Lee, a veteran reporter who was with the NBC affiliate in 1978, and was now with ABC. There were also reporters from KCBS, CNN, CBS, and the local Fox affiliate.
After a welcome prayer, Reverend Norwood was introduced. She demanded “that Evergreen fulfills their promise for Memorial Wall.” She read a letter from 2002 that mentioned building materials for the project and that expressed the “hopes that fundraising proves successful.” Norwood said she was using Amador, a vendor recommended by Evergreen, and that money had changed hands. Even after the mike went out, Reverend Norwood continued to talk about past memorial services and fundraising efforts.
Reverend Norwood said that her memorial would consist of a half dozen large, upright slabs of polished granite, each with the names of about 102 adults. A separate stone would list the 304 children who died. She had been raising money, but because of the bad economy, donations had slacked off. In the course of the presentation, Norwood mentioned that she had led the first memorial for the Jonestown victims, when no one else was doing memorials.
Dick Gregory was introduced. Supporters held up pictures of children, including one I recognized of Kimo Prokes. Gregory went into detail about Bob Hope’s theme song – “Thanks for the memories” – then said the memorial would be a way to say thanks to the memories for the children.
After Gregory’s remarks, Norwood opened the conference up to questions. One reporter asked whether Jim Jones Jr. had pressured the cemetery about not having her memorial there. She said she didn’t know. Many of the reporters were confused about the memorials in general. Norwood flat out said they “will not honor a murderer, but they will honor the children.”
I knew I had to say something. I raised my hand and asked: “Will the names of the men and boys who killed Congressman Ryan, the reporters, and Patricia Parks be on the memorial?”
Norwood looked at me. I knew she’d been through the worst tragedy possible, and she has tried very hard to get this memorial off the ground. Yet I also knew questions had to be answered.
“I don’t know who killed them, but Larry Layton was one of the shooters,” she stated, still glaring at me.
On my iPhone, I looked at my Kindle app where I have a copy of Tim Reiterman’s Raven. In the search box, I type in “shooters.” Instantly I got names of the men and boys. It also confirmed what I knew: Larry Layton did shoot Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby, but they survived their wounds. Gosney later testified for Layton several times at a parole hearing in September 2001.
Before I could ask a follow-up question, the conference abruptly ended, and a prayer service began. I felt like Mike Wallace in his 60 Minutes days. The reporters stood there, not sure what to do. A reporter from the San Francisco Examiner who was near me said “She didn’t answer your question. They killed them, yet their names are going on the memorial.”
“She whitewashed it,” I said.
“Sounds like it.” He shrugged, then went to talk to someone. Reverend Norwood then went to the reporters (except for me) and showed them the canceled checks. I decided to leave, partly because I have other things to do for my other job, and partly because I really didn’t want to have a confrontation with Reverend Norwood. Even if I told her the names, I didn’t know what good it would do.
I heard Vic Lee and his cameraman talk behind me. “They need money for the memorial. They don’t have to go on and on about it,” I heard the cameraman said.
I ducked in the chapel, then prayed again. I prayed that I did the right thing, asking the question. I also prayed for resolution and peace.
As I walked down the road, I saw the cameraman again, smoking a brown cigarette. Vic Lee had stepped into the cemetery office. The cameraman saw me, let out a sigh. “What you said,” I said, “it made sense.”
“She wants money. Why she’s bringing Jones’ name in it, I don’t know. It’s not about him and not about the children.”
By then Vic Lee had come out of the office, saying the Evergreen manager was in San Jose and could not be reached for comment. I walked away, hands in my pockets, looking at the satellite trucks’ towers as they stood against the blue sky.
(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are Finding Jeanette McDonald’s Pool and Albatross. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. She may be reached at email@example.com.)