I have always thought that it is human nature to “rock,” to live outside the lines, to rebel and go against the grain. To this day I admire people who say exactly what’s on their mind or who are shockingly honest, especially if what they say rings true. Our study of history is in reality a study of these individuals, whether they are loved or despised. There is usually no middle ground for rockers.
I believe that people who joined Peoples Temple were rockers. First off, they were criticized for joining the Temple at all, such as black people who were criticized for following a white man. People – regardless of their color – were also criticized when they wanted to leave the Temple. Jim Jones’ biggest challenge was getting people to do what I call “Rock This Way.”
At its core, Peoples Temple was an organization that challenged all the standard social norms in the already-challenging 1960’s and 1970’s. At least that is what Jones wanted the Temple to be perceived as, and to a large degree, he succeeded. He used the pulpit to criticize the government agencies that try to control the people – the FBI and the CIA – and because of the strength of his message and increasing power, he gained politically. As a result, he was most certainly monitored in some form or the other. But his greatest success came from his recognition of people’s nature to rock, which made his biggest challenge of one getting people to “rock this way,” this socialistic, egalitarian, utopian, humanitarian, economic equality way. To this day, I don’t know if it was purely his ego that drove that whole thing, or if there ever was a hint of real sincerity, I truly believe that most rank-and-file members themselves were sincere in what they were doing, especially early on.
As a child going up in the Temple, I remember hearing a lot of words like “panacea” and “utopia.” What person in their right mind doesn’t want peace? Every rocker at their core just wants to be left alone without the threat of an outside force disrupting them. But there were also rockers on the other side, the members of Concerned Relatives, the journalists, and Congressman Leo Ryan, people who converged at the same point and who bucked the odds to make their point. They stood up to the power of Jim Jones to get their relatives back or to tell the true story of what was going on or to check on the welfare of American citizens. The people who died at the airstrip on that day had worked hard all their lives to obtain the education and had risen to the top of their field in journalism and politics.
The rockers of science, arts, technology, politics, fashion, music, and culture – people like Gandhi, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Richard Pryor, and Martin Luther King – these people usually have very challenging lives because they blaze a trail rather than follow one. These are only the ones who are in the limelight, but there are countless others who say things that need to be said, no matter how badly they are perceived. And when you think about the person on the final fateful day who illustrates that, you need look no further than Christine Miller, a bona fide certified rocker who stood up – and was shouted down – in her defense of life.
May God continue to hold up the names of my sisters and brothers.
(Jackie Colbert is a former member of Peoples Temple. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)