Tapes Challenge Popular Perceptions of Jonestown

Jim Jones painting
I recently conducted an unscientific polling of 15 of my friends. My question to them was, “What do you know about Jonestown and Jim Jones?” The responses were quite interesting. Those over 35 had a rough idea of the events of November 18, 1978 but an extremely distorted perspective about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Conversely, the only thing those under 35 could only say was, “Wasn’t that the Kool-Aid guy?”

Jonestown has become so shrouded in myth that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate fact from misconception. For most people, Jonestown was a community comprised of gullible men and women led by an mentally disturbed but charismatic charlatan. Of course, this one-dimensional view is overly simplistic but unfortunately all too pervasive.

I first heard of Jim Jones and Jonestown sometime in 1981. National Public Radio put together a documentary about the event. It was a revolutionary production, because for the first time people were able to hear the voices of Jim Jones and the members of Peoples Temple. I sat transfixed throughout the entire 90 minute broadcast. My interest in learning more about this subject was aroused and I spent the next two decades intermittently studying the history, beliefs and behavior of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.

There was something, however, which I found disconcerting in my research. It seemed that only two juxtaposing views existed with respect to Jonestown. Either Jonestown was the result of a diabolical madman or a vast governmental conspiracy. I immediately rejected the latter proposition as untenable, but felt that there must be more to it than mere acceptance of Jones’ madness. Although I generally adhered to the theory that Jones was an avaricious demagogue whose sole motivation was the acquisition of wealth and power, I also felt something was missing. However, each article I read, every documentary I saw and almost all discussions I engaged in seemed to either re-enforce my previously expressed views or posed more questions for me than answers.

A little over a year ago I did a web search about Jonestown. Most of the sites consisted of one conspiracy theory or another. When I stumbled upon the Alternative Considerations website, I feared it would be just one more individual attempting to pedal her or his unique ideas concerning Jonestown. As I read the site, I was surprised at the vast amount of information as well as the primary source material. The fact that the website actually had the tapes of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple clinched it for me. I was determined to purchase all of the tapes in order to make my own assessment about Jonestown.

As I said, prior to getting the tapes, I viewed Jones as a man seeking wealth and glory. I doubted he had any real concern for his followers. This perception was due primarily to the National Public Radio documentary. James Reston, the producer, chose only the most shocking excerpts for his program, creating a sensationalistic piece rather than a serious attempt at portraying Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

These tapes seriously challenged my previously-held ideas about Jonestown. For instance, I learned that Jones truly had a deep understanding of the Bible. I also discovered that Jones was truly a believer in and proponent of social justice. He lived just like all of the other members of Jonestown. Although he had access to millions of dollars, his lifestyle was commensurate with that of all of the other members.

I was truly surprised when I heard Jones express genuine love and affection to his followers, especially the older members.

Far too many people tend to view Jim Jones and Jonestown as an isolated event. Actually, it was not. Peoples Temple sprang up as a result of discrimination predicated upon race and gender. Langston Hughes once asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” It is not far fetched to answer “Jonestown.” The 918 deaths on November 18 are less a condemnation of Jim Jones than they are an indictment against America’s failure to make good on its promises to the less fortunate among us.

(Muhammad Karim is a freelance writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. His email address is delayplanet@msn.com.)