(Catherine Abbott is a regular contributor to this site. Her full collection of articles is here. She may be reached at email@example.com.)
On November 18th, 1978, more than 900 men, women, and children died of what has been called the largest murder-suicide event in modern history. They committed what their leader, the Reverend Jim Jones, termed “revolutionary suicide” at Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid. How did the members of Peoples Temple get to this point of desperation? Where did this once-small Christian church get its beginnings, and how did that lead to the point of mass murder-suicide?
The events began with the birth of James Warren Jones in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1931. Several factors in this area may have led to the creation of Peoples Temple and set it on its apocalyptic course, but the strong presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana was particularly important to the shaping of Jim Jones’ ideology. The racism and racial tension in Indiana would also have an effect on the members of Peoples Temple, the church he founded in the mid-1950s. If Jim Jones was indeed influenced by his past growing up in Indiana in the 1930s-1950s, then the roots of not only this church but other organizations should be examined as well.
Before Jones was born, the Ku Klux Klan had established themselves as a major force in the Midwest, with the highest concentration of members residing in Indiana. About 250,000 men joined the anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish group, and it is estimated Klansmen comprised 23% of the white adult male population in the city of Evansville, where the Klan first established itself in the state in 1921.
The Klan is known for its violence against its perceived enemies, and many cases of lynching and other murders have been attributed to the Klan. They were and still are a racist organization, and African-Americans were certainly a target of the Klan. The Klan’s second Imperial Wizard, Hiram Wesley Evans, said in 1924, “The Negro is simply racially incapable of understanding, sharing, or contributing to Americanism.” African-Americans were not seen as equals to whites by Klansmen, and were therefore threatening to whites. However, unlike the Southern chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, the Midwest Klansmen were less violent, described instead by historian Richard K. Tucker as “flag-waving” nativists. He writes that these Klansmen were a “mix of nineteenth century Know-Nothing [nativists], fueled by a nationalistic fervor left over from World War I.” Tucker claims their “weapons were social and economic intimidation, boycotts, slanderous propaganda and rumor, awesome spectacles, vigilante patrols, and—above all—the ballot box.”
The ballot box was indeed where the Klan exerted its power. The Ku Klux Klan identified with the Republicans in Indiana, and gained much popular support in the 1924 election. “The order’s basic message was that average white Protestants were under attack,” historian Leonard J. Moore writes. “Their values and traditions were being undermined, their vision of America’s national purpose and social order appeared to be threatened, and their ability to shape the course of public affairs seemed to have diminished.” To promote their ideology, the group released a weekly newspaper, The Fiery Cross. A 1927 article in the New Republic agreed the Ku Klux Klan was a group not looking to make change, but rather to preserve the status quo, which they feared was disappearing in this changing nation. This would include the participation of blacks, Catholics, and Jews in politics, for they feared these groups would enact political and social change that would threaten the white American Protestant’s way of life.
The Indiana Klan had a lot of power during the early 1920s in particular. Although established in Evansville in 1921, the Klan expanded to reach Indianapolis in 1922 under the direction of Grand Dragon David Curtis (“D.C.”) Stephenson, whose influence was such that at one point, he claimed, “I am the law in Indiana,” and even had presidential aspirations. He was a powerful figurehead of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana until he was found guilty of the abduction, rape, and murder of Madge Oberholtzer.
A second influential member of the Ku Klux Klan who rose to power in the mid-1920s was Edward L. Jackson. Jackson, the former Indiana Secretary of State, served as the governor from 1924-1929. His political career ended after being investigated and tried on bribery charges. However, he was not found guilty, as the statute of limitations had run out on his alleged crimes. Still, this shows that prominent members of the Indiana Klan were corrupt and a major source of distrust for some citizens of Indiana. Among them was Jim Jones.
Issues concerning the Ku Klux Klan directly affected Jones’ home life. There has been controversy over whether Jones’ father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Jim Jones claims that his father, or “Big Jim,” was indeed a member. However, the Jonestown Institute dispels this myth: “Jones sometimes talked about the struggles he faced as a youth—and finally breaking away from his father—because of the latter’s association with the Ku Klux Klan. ‘My father was a Ku Klux Klan bandit, but I’m the greatest humanitarian, the greatest savior that this universe has ever known,’ he said in 1973. None of these claims was true.” Furthermore, as David Chidester writes, Jones’ father “was recalled by Jim Jones as having been active in the Ku Klux Klan… but, while his father may have been sympathetic with the aims of the Klan, no evidence of his membership exists.” Still, this does not seem to make much of a difference. The important element was that the Peoples Temple congregation believed that Jones had overcome this oppressive upbringing by a Ku Klux Klan member and had managed to construct a multiracial denomination.
Another story the Reverend often told to show his sympathy for minorities was about a conflict with his father during Jones’ young adulthood. Jim Jones recalls, “Feeling as an outcast, I’d early developed a sensitivity for the problems of blacks. I brought the only black young man in the town home and my dad said that he could not come in and I said, ‘Then I shan’t,’ and I did not see my dad for many years.” This again shows Jones’ attempts to relate to and show empathy for the African Americans he was recruiting for his church.
However, Jones was not all talk when it came to living his multiracial dream. He and his wife, Marceline Jones, adopted an African American child, the first white family in Indiana to do so. This added a lot of credibility to his message of racial harmony and integration.
Jim Jones, Jr., a former Peoples Temple member, recalls:
I was the first Negro child adopted by a Caucasian family in the state of Indiana. Jim and Marceline actually went to adopt a Caucasian child. The story goes that I was crying real loud and it drew attention for Marceline to come over, and once she picked me up, I stopped crying. My family was a template of a rainbow family. We had an African American, we had two American Asian and we had his natural son, homemade.
Jones’ dream of a multiracial church was finally realized after he broke away from the non-integrationist Methodist Church and started his own, Peoples Temple. This was a ground-breaking achievement, particularly in the conservative state of Indiana. Several interviewed for the PBS documentary “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” recall the importance of this occurrence:
June Cordell, Relative of Peoples Temple Member: It didn’t make no difference what color you were. It was everybody welcome there in that church and he made it very plain from the platform.
Eugene Cordell, Relative of Peoples Temple Member: We had some people that disagreed with Jimmy. They got up in the audience and they said they disagreed with him. They did not like this integration part of the services. We did ask people to leave the church one night because of that.
Rev. Garnett Day, Minister: Jim was breaking new ground in race relations at a time when the ground was still pretty hard against that. Jim Jones was hated and despised by some people, particularly in the white community.
In those early years of his ministry, Jones seemed to truly practice what he preached. Among his achievements were setting up a soup kitchen for the homeless, “not just once or twice a week but feeding hundreds every day.” Additionally, Jones organized an employment assistance service in which church members helped the unemployed find work and gave them clothes to wear to job interviews. “The healing of America’s divide between blacks and whites was always at the core of Jones’ message, and Peoples Temple reflected that in the diversity of its congregation — a rarity then and even 30 years later.” In 1961, Jones was appointed to Indianapolis’ Human Rights Commission by the mayor, Charles Boswell. The commission had been created to address racial problems in Indianapolis. Boswell later claimed Jones helped “pressure store owners and theater managers to be more welcoming” of African American customers.
According to the Jonestown Institute, “Jim Jones identified with the African- and Native Americans in his congregations, and often described everyone in Peoples Temple—himself included—as part of the nation’s oppressed populations of blacks, browns, Indians, and Asians. To make his point—figurative as it was—he often described himself and everyone who followed him as ‘niggers’ to distinguish themselves from those who have power and make the rules.” Other times Jones claimed to be literally black, once saying in a sermon, “Some of you, you think you’re white, honey, but you’re just as black as I am.” Again, this shows Jones’ attempts to empathize with the African Americans in his congregation, by showing them that he understood their struggles and was struggling alongside with them.
However, the pressures of a multiracial church in Indiana got to be too much for Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, and they decided to move across the country to California. Jonestown Institute founders Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore explain this decision in the PBS documentary “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple”:
Fielding McGehee, Relative of Peoples Temple Members: There had been pressures on him to leave Indianapolis. He thought that Indianapolis was too racist of a place for him to be, and he wanted to take his people out.
Rebecca Moore, Relative of Peoples Temple Members: California is perceived to be a very progressive state. This would be the place to implement the dream of racial equality. Not Indianapolis, which seems hopeless, but California, which seems to be the Promised Land.
Peoples Temple spent the next decade in California, with churches in Ukiah, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, before acquiring land in the South American country of Guyana, to start the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known as Jonestown. However, even in later years, Jim Jones spoke much about the Ku Klux Klan and its role in the United States. The following is an excerpt from a sermon Jones gave in 1977, one year before the murder-suicides in Guyana:
Jones: What about the fact the Ku Klux Klan has increased one hundred times in its membership in New York, till just a few months ago, it almost took over Attica.
Voices in congregation: Right.
Jones: If you read your newspaper, your TV, it almost took over Attica prison. They almost stormed in and killed all the Indians and blacks and Mexicans. Where? Not in Mississippi, I’m talking about New York State.
Congregation: Right, right. (Cheers and applause)
Jones: Then it’s the church’s duty. It’s the church’s duty to have a place of protection for its people. We’ve got a place to protect our people. If we have nuclear war, we got a cave. [You] Say, how did you find it? The I- spirit of the living God showed it right down in the deep of the earth. We got one out in the west coast, you can’t find any end in it. Got water and food down there for nuclear war. But honey, there’s things worse than nuclear war.
This shows Jim Jones’ mounting paranoia about the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, a sentiment which he spread to his congregation. It did not matter whether he told the truth or not, as Peoples Temple members did not have access to American newspaper or other media, only the “news of the day” which Jones himself read from the Jonestown radio room. For example, Jones claimed that the United States was enacting a plan to remove all African Americans and Native Americans within six months. Laura Johnston Kohl, a former Peoples Temple member recalls, “We had no other radio or T.V. or communication with parents or any kind of…update that could show us…that there’s a whole other thing going on besides what Jim was interpreting for us.” The members of Peoples Temple had little choice but to believe what their leader was telling them about the condition of the United States.
Even the end of Jonestown was influenced by the African American struggle. On November 18th, 1978, as Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, he referred to this act as one of “revolutionary suicide,” a term journalists Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs point out was borrowed from Black Panther Huey Newton. Newton’s definition of “revolutionary suicide,” which he saw more as a defensive move than an offensive one, is as follows:
We say that if we must die, then we will die the death of a revolutionary suicide. The revolutionary suicide that says that if I am put down, if I am driven out, I refuse to be swept out with a broom. I would much rather be driven out with a stick, because with the broom, when I am driven out, it will humiliate me and I will lose my self-respect. But if I am driven out with the stick, then at least I can remain with the dignity of a man and die the death of a man, rather than die the death of a dog. Of course, our real desire is to live, but we will not be cowed, we will not be intimidated.
Jones used these same ideas when he gave his speech to his congregation, imploring them to drink the cyanide. He asked that his people “die with a degree of dignity.” Ultimately, over 900 of them would drink the poisoned Flavor-Aid – some by choice, many by force – and would die at Jonestown.
In the end, the Ku Klux Klan was not the reason Peoples Temple collapsed. However, it did play a role in the shaping of the organization. Jones was greatly influenced by the political power and presence of the Klan in Indiana during his childhood and early adulthood. Seeing the racism and racial divide in Indiana, as evidenced by the Klan’s political power and through personal instances of racism with his father, Jones created a multiracial church and family in response. The sympathy Jones had for African Americans and other minorities would persist throughout Peoples Temple’s existence through his sermons and actions. By convincing his congregation that the United States intended its minorities harm, he kept them loyal to Peoples Temple and convinced them that return to the United States was impossible. Therefore, while the Ku Klux Klan was not the only factor in the murder-suicides at Jonestown, it shaped the creatuion of Peoples Temple and influenced the direction of the church.
If we are to accept that the Ku Klux Klan and racial tension in Indianapolis were major influences on the development of Peoples Temple and Jones’ ideology, other religious organizations should be examined as well. The history of a group shapes the direction in which it will operate, and therefore gains importance to the study of the organization. In the case of Jonestown, when the influences of the Ku Klux Klan and race relations are made factors, the overall form of the church changes from a purely religious one to a social and cultural movement. This is necessary for understanding not only Peoples Temple, but other groups that perhaps are more than the religious movements they claim to be. In conclusion, it is necessary to study the roots of these organizations to look for patterns and perhaps to even predict the direction the group may ultimately take. It is doubtful that one could have foreseen the shocking conclusion to Peoples Temple and its agricultural project, but examining its roots and influences is a worthwhile study if it will lead to the examination of other groups’ histories. Ultimately, this careful inspection may lead to a greater understanding of the organization, or even to help to predict future behavior of the group.
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 Julia Scheeres, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (New York, NY: Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, 2011), 230.