Johnny Moss Brown’s story was similar to many other members of Peoples Temple. He joined as an individual, he became part of several Temple families, and yet he remained his own man. In fact, in many ways, he epitomized those characteristics. Through his strength of personality, he commanded a great deal of respect when he walked into the Temple, the families he joined were among the most important – Jim and Marceline Jones adopted him, and he became partners with a member of the Cobb family – and he was a leader both in the States and in Guyana. Whether he was an official associate minister or not – Jim tended to hand out the title like Halloween candy – Johnny was perceived that way in San Francisco. He was usually on stage during services, preparing the congregation for Jim and introducing him, taking offerings – endless offerings – introducing Jim, and being present in private and public meetings.
Johnny was amiable, and had a constant, bright and disarming smile, and a good sense of humor. He worked well with people, and I remember him as both friendly and intense in all he did. Johnny and his partner Ava Cobb Brown were together for a number of years and adopted two children, Stephanie Brown Jones (aka Stefanie Morgan) and Marchelle Jacole Jones.
In Jonestown, he continued his onstage work in leading meetings and giving Jim whatever support he needed during community meetings. Documents recovered from Jonestown show that Johnny worked on one of the five counseling teams, as a teacher working with seniors in “political enlightenment,” as a supervisor of one of the 50 cottages, and on the Security crew at the front gate. Finally, a photograph of a Jonestown organizational charge shows him as being part of a triumvirate – along with Carolyn Moore Layton and Harriet Tropp – directly under Jim, but whether that was a proposed reorganization and/or a plan that had Jim’s blessing is unknown.
Ava, like Johnny, was also busy, though less in front of it all than Johnny was, more a “behind the scenes” sort of person. Ava was quieter – though spoke loudly when needed – and is listed as supervising several administrative areas of Jonestown. She liked working with children and was Co-Director of Child Care and the nursery. She supervised Counseling groups, and was listed as member of two of the five groups. She was one of the Teachers of “political enlightenment” to seniors; she was assistant supervisor in the WRSM (Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement) instituted to raise women’s self-awareness. And she was in charge of Education, Housing and Population, one of ten major administrative departments of Jonestown.
Ava Cobb was part of a large family. As did Johnny, Ava died in Jonestown, and so did her siblings Sandy, Brenda and Joel, and so did her mother Christine. Ava and Johnny’s daughter Stephanie survived, but Marchelle Jacole Jones didn’t. Two of Ava’s other siblings, Jim and Terry, had defected several years earlier, and her brother John was in Georgetown and survived that way.
But perhaps more so than any other person in Jonestown – with the notable exception of Jim Jones himself – the voice of Johnny Moss Brown Jones continues to ring out.
(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)
(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)