I grew up in Ukiah, and was living there when Jim Jones and his small group of followers arrived in Redwood Valley from Indiana. I remember two different responses my family had about the Temple, before and after November 18, 1978.
Jim Jones brought some of the very first blacks to the county. My family gave Jones and the people with him a lot of credit for effectively integrating a fairly homogenous – that is, all white – part of California. But it was a very redneck place, and there were no shortages of nasty stories and comments about “Jim Jones and his niggers.” For my family, this type of thinking – born in vicious racism and ignorance – was abhorrent. We saw and applauded the good side of the Temple: Jim Jones was giving inner city kids a second chance in a new environment, and that environment received the opportunity to experience and learn about racial diversity. And the kids themselves were fantastic – kind, nice, studious – maybe a bit on the quiet and private side, but good kids who were making the best of their opportunity. So when we’d hear rumors – from the rednecks – about how Jim Jones claimed to be God, and about staged assassinations and resurrections of himself at the church, we dismissed them as the gossipy ravings of ignorant bigots.
Then came November 18, 1978. When we heard the news coming from Guyana, my mother and I looked at each other with the same shock everyone felt, but also with some shame. We had to admit that those rednecks might have been telling the truth. They might have been racists, they might have had distasteful motives in spreading the stories, but that didn’t mean they were always wrong.
Was there something we could have done if we’d taken their rantings seriously? We will, of course, never know. I’m sure every member of Peoples Temple who survived Jonestown has asked himself or herself similar questions. And this of course doesn’t pertain just to Jim Jones, and the questions aren’t ones for just the survivors to ask. We all need to make sure that we constantly look beyond the obvious, and beyond the stereotypes in our own lives as well.