Sometimes in life we find that what we thought we knew about a subject may be nothing more than an unfounded belief. After hundreds of hours of study on the subject, the only fact I can guarantee to the world is that the people who made up Peoples Temple wanted to make the world a better place. Whether or not they succeeded is not my call, but I will argue that they need to be known for much more than what happened on November 18, 1978.
After interviewing Jordan Vilchez, having a long conversation with Laura Kohl, making Facebook friends with numerous survivors and having interaction with this website, I’ve learned there is so much more than meets the eye and there are countless tales that have never been told. What passes as a history of Peoples Temple in most popular accounts does not begin to touch the surface of what really transpired in the streets of San Francisco and in the jungle of Guyana, when it fought first to improve and then to remake American society.
Many members came to the conclusion that Jim Jones had lost his way, but they still believed in the concepts that brought them all together. Could they could have survived without him, if he’d been removed from power? Would they have been killed in the process? Was Jim Jones always evil, and was this all one elaborate plan to control blacks, women and money? The answer depends on who you speak with.
The irony is that anyone of us could’ve ended up as members of Peoples Temple. The reality is that in a racist society where people were fighting for equality, the Temple appeared to be a beacon of hope and from all accounts was just that initially. The Temple was a place where non-conformists could flourish. Certainly the beliefs and goals of the Temple were attractive, and if people compromised themselves along the way to reach those goals, how does that make them any different from us. And when the judgment day came, how many of us could then have found the strength to walk away?
As a result of my study, I’ve changed from believing that the Temple was a collection of crazies to an understanding of it as a group of people I view with the utmost respect and admiration. With that said, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve also come to despise Jim Jones.
Jim Jones could have led his people to great things. He could’ve stood apart from the crowd and had been revered today with honor and pride. Instead, he decided to direct one of the greatest tragedies in 20th century America. But November 18, 1978 is more than a one-day tragedy. Instead, it left a pain in the heart of many that can never be healed.
It saddens me that the story of Peoples Temple that we read in history books is centered around Jim Jones and not the Temple as a whole. There is much more to learn from the members that has not been told. My hope is that the stories of the followers, rather than just of the leader, will one day take their rightful place in American history.
(Bill Neri-Amadeo is a lawyer who lives in New Jersey. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at AmadeowLaw@Aol.com.)