James Cobb: (Adjusts mike) He helped me lower it a little bit. My glasses don’t go that far. (Waves pages) I’ll hold it close.
Kasserian Ingera. How are the children? More on this later.
First, I would like to thank my brother John Cobb, James Jones Jr., and Fielding McGehee for organizing this memorial dedication ceremony, for their initiative and follow through. I would like to thank all of you in attendance for being here, for your support and for the support of those elsewhere whose contributions made this memorial possible. I also would like to thank Mr. Buck Kamphausen and Mr. Ron Haulman and the entire Evergreen staff for their generous contributions and for the hard work which turned a quiet slope into this wonderful memorial.
I am grateful for this occasion, finally, after far too long.
I’ve been to the site many times in the last three decades. My visits have always been a private affair. This recent transformation – this beautiful memorial with the granite tablets and all the names of those lost in Jonestown – has made the invisible visible. It is simple and elegant, and I anticipate individuals and families will find occasion to visit much more often.
Hopefully many first-time conversations about some aspect of Jonestown and the loved ones lost there will take place at this site; in fact, it has already happened with my son Joel and I a week ago. My brother Joel – my son’s namesake – died in Jonestown at age 13, and is buried here. My son and I talked as we transferred his uncle’s name from the granite slab onto paper by rubbing over it with a pencil.
This day means so much to so many, some no longer with us in body. Taking the liberty I’d like to mention two, Beverly and Howard Oliver. I met Howard and Beverly days before November 18 nearly 33 years ago. I admired them for their bravery and being loving parents.
The night of November 17th, as we talked in small groups after visiting Jonestown earlier, Beverly had finally gotten to see and be with her sons. She said with pride and tears, “Those are my boys.” I don’t have heroes, but there are many whom I admire and who inspire me. Two that go back over 40 years are Fannie Lou Hammer and Harry Belafonte. Beverly and Howard Oliver are special as well.
The story of those who died, our story, was written in bold headlines nationwide only a few days after the 18th of November, three decades ago. Most of the headlines read “Bizarre Suicide Cult.” What hit the front pages of the newspapers first, especially with such authority of voice, was repeated over and over and over again and was, by and large, accepted by the general public as official truth.
The names chiseled in this granite memorial will be touched and read by many people. Some will come specifically to see it, others visiting other gravesites will wander over and read the names of Bill and Bruce Oliver, Brian and Claudia Bouquet, Joel Cobb, Steve Addison, Edith and Dan Kutulas, Mona Young, Leo Ryan…
That story will be more complete when those involved, as members, friends, relatives and others in knowing positions, tell their stories.
As introduced, my name is James Cobb. I lost my mother, brother, three sisters, other relatives and many friends in Jonestown. I was there in Guyana during those terrible hours. Our loss was more than losing mothers, brothers, sisters, wives and friends in an untimely manner. It was also about losing a dream.
I first walked through the door of Peoples Temple, wide-eyed and holding my mother’s hand, as it began in Indianapolis, Indiana in the 1950s. I was awed by the interior size of the place, the sea of people standing against the walls, in the aisles, and crowded outside the front door.
On Sundays, my sisters Ava and Teresa and I, squeaky clean and Vaseline shiny, tagged along with our mother to this church. It was there where, for the first time, I saw people of all colors worshiping together. Over the years the crowd grew smaller, and a little darker, but feeding the hungry and homeless continued. That’s where I headed every time I attended, to see for myself, that this church was doing this not just on holidays and special occasions. This impressed me.
At age 5, my dream was to become a professional baseball player. By age 10 or 11, my mission in life was set: in addition to a Hall of Fame baseball career, I would devote myself to helping the world be a better place. Like most if not all of you, I had seen enough injustice, poverty included.
A lofty dream perhaps, envisioning the United States of America’s people united, no more poverty, no more racism, no more war. And, in the mix, our seniors, protected, cared for and treated as kings and queens. After a lifetime of work, making and building this country, they have earned and deserve peace of body and mind. No worries about healthcare or money, no worries about being respected or not properly cared for. Silly and grandiose, perhaps, but for me, this has been a just cause to wake up to each morning believing that one day this vision would become the reality it should be.
I joined Peoples Temple when I was 17 years old, leaving my native Indiana to follow my parents, sisters and brothers in California after they had relocated there months earlier to become a part of what I had come to understand to be a people’s movement for justice and equality. In those early days, Peoples Temple presented an exhilarating example and potential of what people – black, white, red, yellow, older and young, from different religions and walks of life – could accomplish together to help this country live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all.
Our children are the future. Yet, one-third of those who died in Jonestown were children under the age of 17. So, I greet you again as I greeted you in the beginning, with the expression Kasserian Ingera. It is a greeting passed between Masai warriors as explained in Dr. Joy DeGruy’s book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. It means, “and how are the children?” Continuing, she includes an excerpt from a speech by the Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill:
Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer. “All the children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless are in place, the Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibility. “All the children are well,” means that life is good.
I wonder how it might affect our consciousness of our own children’s welfare if, in our culture, we took to greeting each other with the same daily question: “And how are the children?” I wonder if we heard that question and passed it along to each other a dozen times a day, if it would begin to make a difference in the reality of how children are thought of or cared for in this country. I wonder if we could truly say without hesitation, “The children are well, yes, all the children are well.”
In the long days, weeks, and months after Jonestown, each of us – attempting to overcome our isolation and shock – took our own nightmarish journey back to some kind of normalcy, each of us trying to reconnect the pieces of our shattered lives. Varying degrees of loss, grief, rage, despair and guilt has marked these journeys. Many of us found comfort in alcohol and drugs to numb ourselves against our ever-present mental and emotional pain.
But ultimately, life’s energy will not be denied.
Some of us didn’t make it through, but for most of us – many of whom are seated here now listening to these words – we have finally succeeded in healing ourselves to the point where we can come to fully remember and memorialize those we loved and lost.
Our successful journeys can be directly attributed to the continuing love and support of new loved ones and the regrowth of family. It was my remaining and growing family who sit with me in this audience today: my brother John, my sister Teresa, my sons James and Joel, my nieces Raphael and Monace, and nephew William, my beautifully intelligent grandchildren Janae and the one bouncing in front, Laila – whose presence, love and encouragement have helped me, gradually, to regain my strength and will to keep living.
So, for me, this monument is much more than an object created to commemorate the loved ones lost. It is the place to slow down, meditate, peacefully contemplate, and heal. It stands as a reminder to me of the dreams, dedication, hard work, and commitment needed to achieve the realization of a vision against forces which will always be there to try and stop us. I look out at the young ones in my family, and I hope they are beginning to understand that Jonestown was about much more than one thousand people who senselessly died. I hope they understand that – in its highest sense – it was about people working towards a dream of peace, justice, and equality for all people. And, it is my hope that this remembrance of these loved ones will strengthen you in your resolve to – each in your own way – continue to strive to make our world a place were their dreams and visions can still come true.