Jim Jones’ name on the marker:
A discussion of the committee’s decision

by Fielding M. McGehee III

The name of Jim Jones appears on the Jonestown memorial.

For years, the question of whether Jim Jones’ name should be put on a memorial marker has been a significant flashpoint in any discussion of moving forward with honoring the other 917 who died, and so far, it has blocked the completion of a memorial. The members of the Jonestown Memorial Fund think we found a compromise – if there can be a compromise between putting on a person’s name, and not putting on a person’s name – and that is this: he is listed as James Warren Jones, not as Jim Jones; and he will be in alphabetical order between James Arthur “Jimbo” Bishop Jones and Jessie Weana Jones, in the same size type as everyone else, with nothing directing the eye or one’s attention to his name.

It’s important to realize that the new memorial project was conceived and advanced – with the inclusion of the name of Jim Jones – with the support of scores of Jonestown survivors, former Peoples Temple members, and relatives of those who died. It is by no means unanimous support, but a number of people have struggled to find peace with the events of that day, and in that peace, have found forgiveness for, or at least acceptance of, Jim Jones.

There are a number of reasons for doing this. It has been a guiding principle since the beginning of this campaign, and we have not made a secret of it. Folks have asked us to put on the names of the seven who died in Jonestown before 11/18; others have asked us to include other members of the Temple in the U.S. who died either before or after. Our mantra has been: 918, no more, no fewer.

The most basic consideration is that a memorial stone cannot be an opinion piece, but a factual piece. It will be around for at least another 100 years – since it is granite – long after we have all died, and our passions with us. In the years to come, people will come to look at the names of those who died. Whatever his degree of ultimate culpability, however much he did share it with others, whatever the role of madness played in his actions, the fact is, 918 people died that day, and Jim Jones is one of them.

Indeed, some people have argued that, if one views Jim Jones as being mad at the end of his life, he was as much a victim of his own delusions and paranoia as anyone else.

There are other larger issues, though. Some people have proposed that any memorial that goes up should not list any of the people who were responsible for the deaths of November 18. A few suggest deleting the Jonestown doctor, Larry Schacht; others suggest members of the leadership, like Carolyn Layton, Harriet Tropp, and Maria Katsaris; others suggest leaving off the names of Jim McElvane and others who shouted down the voices of dissent on November 18; still others propose that the memorial omit the names of the identified shooters at the airstrip; finally, we heard from people who suggested that Leo Ryan and the newsmen who were slain at the airstrip should be omitted, since it was their arrival that set the tragic events in motion.

This leads to a question that should not be considered as rhetorical: where do we draw the line of responsibility? Jim Jones may have been ultimately responsible for the deaths that day, but he was not solely responsible. He did not order the poison, or mix the poison, or serve the poison. He did not administer injections. Others – mainly on the medical staff (including the doctor) and enabled by the leadership – did that. But responsibility does not stop there. How about the people who eased the community’s way towards death over the months by testifying before the community that they were willing to die for the cause? And on the day itself, how about the shooters at the airstrip? How about the people – both known and unknown – who may have held guns on the crowd? How about the parents who murdered their own children? How about the parents who stood by and watched while their children were murdered by others? How about the adults who did not end the deaths by rushing the vat?

In the end, aren’t we saying that every adult in Jonestown bears some responsibility for the deaths? And doesn’t that mean that, if we strip the memorial of everyone with some responsibility, we will have a memorial of nothing but the children?

Jim Jones died in Guyana on November 18, 1978, just as 917 others did, and that is what the memorial will list: everyone who died in Guyana on November 18, 1978.

There were a couple of calls for putting Jim Jones’ name at the end of the list, though. That decision would have separated him out, and would be giving him power by that separation, just as he would be given power by exclusion. Where he is – lost in a sea of names, stuck between a child named James Arthur Jones and an elderly woman named Jesse Weana Jones – he is neither elevated nor ridiculed. He is just there, an equal among the others. His name will be there for future generations to find and recognize, and to see all around him, the damage he did.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 10th, 2013.
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