I came to order cassette recordings of Peoples Temple from the Jonestown Institute after having engaged in an intensive study of the book Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman, which opens with this defining quote from Jim Jones: “I come with the black hair of a raven. I come as God Socialist!”
Years ago I had watched the 1981 television miniseries Guyana Tragedy. Later I sought this film out mostly on a whim. Having come from a background of being the son of a Pentecostal minister in a rural southern backwater inhabited by mostly blacks and poor whites, remembrances of the film in its portrayals of a style of religion that is fast disappearing from the American landscape compelled me to seek it out.
When I saw this film again, I got much more than I bargained for. Rather than simply finding representation of the manifestations of grassroots interracial religion that once thrived in the poorer hamlets of this country, where blacks and poor whites lived in geographical proximity, I was also confronted with images of remote compounds, hard manual labor coupled with ideological exhortations over loudspeakers, mass meetings with criticism and self-criticism and principles that put the survival rights of a collective above the private property rights of the individual. These images conjured up thoughts of specific developments around the world which were occurring contemporaneously with the final years of Peoples Temple, developments such as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution spearheaded by Chairman Mao Zedong in China, the short-lived regime of Democratic Kampuchea led by Pol Pot in Cambodia and also the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Kim Il Sung, with its emphasis on collectivism and communist society being an extended family with the leader at the helm.
After the film came the purchase of Raven. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that one of the less sensationalistic books on the subject is also one of the hardest to find (it has been out of print for years and fetches seventy to eighty dollars – or more! – through used booksellers). Once reading I was throttled with new information such as the fact that Jim Jones was not a religious fanatic who turned to socialism, but rather a socialist (and an atheist no less) who understood the religious traditions of the poor and oppressed and used them as a beacon to gather to himself an extended family of blacks, poor whites, seniors, ideologically-driven intellectuals, students and professionals (amongst others) in order to impart to them his communist message and to mobilize them to aid in building a communist organizational infrastructure to provide for their physical and social needs.
Why doesn’t anyone mention the fact that during the Redwood Valley period, much of Peoples Temple was organized into living as communes according to the model of the “cell”? Why hadn’t I ever heard that Jim Jones was more likely to stomp on a Bible than venerate one? And why, during a period in which the Cold War was still in full swing (and years since its end) hadn’t I been clued into the fact Jones was a self-avowed communist, right down to the social model with organized criticism and self-criticism sessions, communal eating and campaigns to eliminate such things as “ageism and sexism”?
The tapes, which consist primarily of Jones’ sermons from Los Angeles and Redwood Valley, and meetings recorded at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, have moved my understanding of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple from theory to the personal as Jim Jones, like a voice out of time, can speak directly to the listener (as he has spoken to me).
I see Jim Jones as remaining one of the most suppressed models of a very potent communist model coming out from the United States, which is well demonstrated in tapes such as Q352 Soviet consular visit to Jonestown community (1 October 1978) (note: this cassette has an interesting part at the end where Jim Jones and the meeting attendees sing “I’m a communist today and I’m glad” which steps up into the verse “I’m a communist today and I’m communist all the way” before returning to the chorus). This is reinforced by many recordings which, for English-speaking audiences, probably constitute some of the only recorded examples of criticism and self-criticism in the Maoist vein being conducted that are existent for immediate perusal. Peoples Temple continues to be well suppressed within common knowledge as well as amongst people who should find some ideological meat from Jones (although Jones, according to Reiterman, conducted joint training sessions in conjunction with the local North Korean embassy to spread teachings of Kim Il Sung to the Guyanese populace, this is very seldom spoken of) which, in an end analysis, shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise. After hours and hours of cassette listening it seems that after all these years Jim Jones and Peoples Temple continues to be a victim of the Cold War. I for one am ready to see the truthful legacy of Peoples Temple unleashed in a more abundant manner, to be engaged directly, as cassettes from the Jonestown Institute make this possible.
(Stephen Brown can be reached at email@example.com.)