November 18, 1978 was a tragically unprecedented day in United States history that will forever be woven into the fabric of this country. It is the day that leader of Peoples Temple, James Warren Jones, ordered the assassination of U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan and others at the Port Kaituma airstrip in South America, then led his congregation on what Guyana’s police chief, Skip Roberts, testified was a “mass suicide.” Thirty years later, however, the depth of this story is still unknown, and many scholars and former members who have continued their exploration of the incidents have found that there is still plenty of evidence and sinister connections which contradict the official version of this story.
The fact that nearly 1,000 people – most of whom were black – tried to create a utopian society outside the confines of the United States shows the sad state of race relations in America at the time. It projects the negative manifesto and mentality that is deeply ingrained in the mentality of this nation, even today. A great example of this is the recent racial explosion in Louisiana, sparked by blacks sitting under the “white tree.” This story – known to us as the Jena 6 – reminds us that we are not very far removed from 1978.
Jonestown was and is a great embarrassment to the United States, and at the time, produced a great deal of negative press around the world. Although the deaths of 918 Americans in the Guyanese jungle has virtually slipped out of the consciousness of the American people, there are some who have dedicated their lives to uncovering the truth, keeping alive the memory of the people and what they stood for, and reminding us of what can happen when we put our ultimate faith into any man.
Jonestown lies behind us; the truth and what it means to us as a society lies in front. There are still many questions that need to be answered. Among them: who was Jim Jones; was Jonestown a prison camp or a paradise; why was it considered “revolutionary suicide” and why was it necessary; was the investigation into the deaths merely botched, or was there a cover-up or conspiracy involved; were the allegations made by the Concerned Relatives and Temple defectors of abuse and torture true; and most important of all, was it suicide or murder? In my new book entitled, Jonestown 30 Years Later – due out in 2008 – I attempt to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical and answer some of these and other tough questions.
The evidence is clear that something more sinister and secretive took place in and around Jonestown. However, there has been no solid proof, no deathbed confessions, to change the official story or make a direct accusation against any individuals. Yet lack of proof does not dismiss the need to speculate what we believe to be true, if we use our faculties of common sense, the inconsistency and lack of credibility of the statements and actions of the government officials in charge, and one of the worst handled investigations in American history. Moreover, there is still a plethora of evidence and many foreboding affiliations that cannot be easily dismissed. All this suggests a much closer look into the details.
This story has intrigued me on many different levels. Not only is it something that I wanted to gain a greater understanding of, but I was physically drawn to its social value. I later realized that this story meant more to me than I could have ever imagined; and intrinsically I knew – even from the beginning – that this was a challenge that I had to face both for personal reasons as well as social ones. I immediately related to the Temple members. I am literally a bi-product of their interracial ideology. I could have figuratively been an offspring of one the members in Jonestown. For example, Vern Gosney’s son Mark was six years old when he died in Jonestown. I was seven years old at the time and, like Mark, I am the product of one black and one white parent. Though I was unaware of it for most of my life, their social struggles were similar to my own and a weight that I would unknowingly be forced to carry throughout the course of my lifetime.
My father and mother split before I was born. My father eventually grew out of his wild ways and later became associate pastor at King of Kings Church in Hackensack, New Jersey, where he served for many years. Though I grew up in a strictly Italian-Catholic home and attended Catholic grammar and high schools, my father frequently took my brother and me to see him preach. There, I was exposed to a whole new world, as he brought me behind the walls of the intense Pentecostal experience that uncannily mirrored Peoples Temple. The atmosphere was electric, as blacks and whites publicly testified and danced around to music as if possessed by a magical spirit. Heads were thumbed with anointing oil, and people were so overcome by the spirit that they collapsed and were caught by other members. The place was alive and everyone felt it! The healing sessions were more ritualistic as opposed to the dramatic and self-serving healings of Jones. Though they did not live communally, the members were like family and routinely spent time together outside the church. All of this was orchestrated by the head Pastor, Ike McKenna, who was a big charismatic and intimidating black man reminiscent of Father Divine. Though my brother and I got great pleasure out of secretly mocking the circus-like atmosphere, I have to admit that I had been touched on some level. This stark contrast to the oppressive nature of the Catholic Church felt more like home. It was an experience that made it easier to lose yourself.
The Book – Jonestown 30 Years Later
There are several sources about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Among them are a few first person accounts – each show uniquely different sides of the same story – as well as other sources that give the reader a broader view. Then there are the, sociological, religious and conspiracy books and articles which also add some critical information and distinctly different perspectives into Jonestown. Beyond that, there are countless articles and essays, including many full of misinformation and bias views based on lack of insight and research. After reviewing nearly every resource on the subject, I found that there is a lack of a suitable gateway book that tells the Jonestown story as well as offering a detailed analysis of the events after the fact.
Jonestown 30 Years Later details the multi-lateral possibility of several different scenarios that helps the reader draw his/her own conclusions through a comprehensive analysis of the investigation and aftermath. During the course of my research, I have discovered several pieces of evidence that have not been considered thoroughly enough. I believe that Jonestown 30 Years Later will reveal what this means.
Jonestown 30 Years Later is the chronological story of the rise and fall of Peoples Temple and its leader Jim Jones – from his early years in Indianapolis and California, to the tragic ending in the jungle of South America that claimed the lives of 918 Americans. I take you inside Jonestown and give you a detailed look at what is was like to live in Jonestown, including the workings of the governing bodies therein. I feel that it is my obligation as a writer – as a man of mixed heritage, as an intrigued outsider, as a psychology enthusiast and as an American citizen – to bring this story to life from a unique perspective. With the combination of 39,000 PT documents obtained through the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act, original audiotapes recovered from Jonestown by the FBI, sworn testimonies under oath, congressional hearings, documents from the CIA and other government agencies, police reports, books, and articles – as well as the enthusiasm of an outsider’s perspective – this book is designed to be the quintessential 30-year marking piece that will re-introduce this story to our society and serve as a reminder of the infamous mantra that hung in the pavilion in Jonestown: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
(William Del Grande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)