Johnny Brown was an active and thoughtful member of Peoples Temple in San Francisco and in Guyana. He stood out to me because he was always in the middle of whatever was going on in the Temple, and yet he was still available to support members as they struggled with emergencies. He was close to Jim, but didn’t seem overshadowed or so mesmerized that he gave up his own identity. He could hold his own with anyone in Temple leadership, but never made that his focus. He was genuine in his concern for the individuals.
Johnny was also very bright. He could anticipate where the greatest need might be and what he could do to help. Jim Jones recognized this and seemed to depend on Johnny to be put out fires. But Johnny brought a thoughtfulness to his actions along with his effectiveness, I think more than Jim ever appreciated.
In a sense, his ability to set his own priorities within the Temple structure gave him an independence, and earned him our respect. Even his choice of a wife – Ava Cobb Brown – was impressive. She was always a thoughtful and nurturing person in any role she had, as well as being beautiful. She too was not so enamored with Jim that she surrender her uniqueness. Together, Johnny and Ava took on parenting roles with her young daughter Stefanie Morgan, with Jim’s own children, and with Ava’s siblings.
Johnny would have been a natural to step into Jonestown leadership if Jim had decided to step down. There was even talk of a triumvirate for running, with Johnny being part of a leadership team. Even though Jim only gave lip service to the plan, it is also clear that Jonestown’s longtime survival would have required such a governing structure and, in addition, Johnny’s participation in it.
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)
(An extensive interview with Laura appeared in the March 5, 2017 edition of The Western Front, the news service of Western Washington University.)