Peoples Temple Conspiracism and the Black Question: A Note on Research in Progress

by Joel Sweek

From the very first academic studies of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, the literature of Religious Studies, Sociology, and Political Science have consistently expressed consternation over the racial distribution of the Jonestown dead. What has been called the “scandal” of Jonestown, as much as the sheer numbers, involves this racial asymmetry. Of course, the membership in Peoples Temple was always ethnically disproportionate with respect to pure numbers, but astoundingly out of sync with the percentages in the American population as a whole. A quick survey of the faces and vital statistics of the deceased on this site’s death list impresses this upon any who will take the time. Any scholar will and should ask the question, simple and blunt though it is, why there are – both absolutely and relatively speaking – so many black people among the dead in Jonestown.

American black racialist conspiracism intersected with Peoples Temple ideology. Jim Jones had always been a conspiracist. It can easily be argued that he came out of a movement that had for centuries implicitly prescribed a conspiracy theory of history. And American history has always had its share of conspiracy belief driving socio-political life. Jones and his followers grew up in the milieu of pre-Ribbentrop-Molotov American Communism, wartime suspicion and espionage, Jim Crow, and Cold War anti-Communism. When Jones was starting out, nuclear age anxiety and the race question were the primary movers in politics. Historical black anxiety toward whites, coupled with civil rights era black separatism, gave rise to new, more sophisticated black racialist theories of white conspiracy.

I have begun a research project to explore the extent to which Jones deployed the terms of this racialist conspiracism in order to draw blacks into Peoples Temple and, ultimately, to the junhgle of Guyana. His relationship to the Black Panthers makes fundamental sense in this respect and will perhaps explain some of the specific content of his preaching in the years between the move into the Bay Area and the end of Jonestown.

This research is still in progress.

(Joel Sweek is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He may be reached at <sweek@lclark.edu.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on October 18th, 2018.
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