I first heard it on the TV news, the word out of Delaware that cremated remains of people from Jonestown had been found in an abandoned funeral home. This was an event that took place more than 35 years ago, with so much pain and suffering for the family members involved. Now it was coming back, with more of the familiar sorrow and pain. Survivors of the tragedy were thrown back into Jonestown’s aftermath, and I could only imagine, once the names came out of the identified cremains, how that would affect their families.
All of this had me thinking about something we really don’t talk about until someone passes away, and that is the concept of legacy. But who would tell the legacy of the people just found in Delaware? We lose someone, and immediately their legacy becomes the topic of discussion. We don’t talk about their income or wealth, instead we ask what they were like, how they treated people, how they bequeathed their values to others. In a sense, we focus on what they have learned instead of what they have earned. It seems to me the people of Peoples Temple have never been given this grace. All of those deaths! All of those children! The nature of the tragedy shattered their chance to leave a legacy. No one remained to really remind us what the movement was truly about, and the only people we heard capitalized on the negative and tragic. The movement embraced thousands of people, and yet the only name we remember from it is that of Jim Jones. But there is a distinct difference between the leader and his followers.
I have done my research. I have investigated multiple angles and used a sociological open mind as well as a sociological scientific method approach. Jim Jones was a flawed man who was truly losing control of his own self. There is something very religious to the understanding that men are flawed. However, many times the ideas of man are not flawed – some would even say God-given – and the people of Peoples Temple were embracing a powerful message. This message that could be heard loud and clear, even with some of the wrong messages coming out, was one of love and civil equality, something many Peoples Temple members never experienced elsewhere. The congregation heard it and embraced it. When people are no longer allowed to have the basic concept of love and equality in their lives – especially when they once had it – it can blind perspectives from seeing when other messages were flawed. The people of Peoples Temple were looking to leave a legacy of love and equality for all. The people did not want to be known as a suicide cult. They wanted to pass a legacy down to their children and beyond.
This is hardly recognized in modern media, and this to me is the ongoing tragedy of Jonestown. The “documentaries” that continue to be aired portray only the last days of Jonestown and look at the people as members of a cult, lost and insane in the heat of Guyana.
I was recently contacted by a group planning a documentary of Jonestown in the context of other “cults” including, but not limited to, the Manson Family and the people in Heaven’s Gate. Right then and there I knew the perspective of this documentary team was off, that they didn’t see the people of Peoples Temple as anything but cult followers. Part of me couldn’t blame them, because most don’t understand the people of Peoples Temple and what they really stood for in the 1970s. The other part of me was furious because I have grown tired of the misinformation that continues to be passed off as facts, and I keep asking why don’t more people know this?
I am a teacher, a husband, a father. At times I enjoy writing and find it a release. One of my other passions is to help the generations of people born after 1978 to understand what Peoples Temple meant to the people who were involved. I want so much to help the voices that were cut off so long ago to leave their legacy, to leave their mark on what they stood for and what they stood against. I want so much to counter all of the negative documentaries that just want to cash in on the “suicide cult” angle with one that shows the legacies of the people who lived and loved there. I want the world to see this so the other documentaries are put to rest.
The more complete definition of legacy that I have been searching for takes on a greater meaning and urgency when we all realize that everything we say and do in life is a deposit into our own personal legacies. We are living it in the here and now. Through the lens of living our legacies each moment, we become aware of the need to live beyond ourselves, focusing on making a difference in the lives of others, giving back, and contributing to a cause greater than ourselves. That right there is the legacy of the 918 lives lost in Guyana that day. And maybe, just maybe, it will be part of my legacy to not let their legacy be silenced.
(Craig Foreman is a Sociology and History Teacher with the Expedition Academy at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. His is also a regular contributor to this site, and his complete collection of articles is here. He may be reached at Ke_cforeman@kentschools.net.)