(An article about the process of this National History Day project is here.)
The Jonestown massacre may have happened so many years ago, but it’s remembered for the powerful message it conveys. Under the rule of Jim Jones, the ruler and mastermind of a mass suicide that took place on November 8, 1978, the residents of Jonestown were deluded into thinking that committing suicide was the right thing to do. Their reasoning behind this was that they would be segregated by the whites if they were alive (their population consisting mostly of black people). This was one of many of the lies Jim Jones preached.
Jim Jones was originally head of a cult in California, but fled when a couple of defectors gave an interview about Jim Jones’ abusive behavior. Hours before this news became public knowledge, Jim Jones and hundreds of others boarded a plane and headed for Guyana. It was there that they build a town named “Jonestown,” strategically placed in the middle of the wilderness by Jim Jones himself so that its residents had no outside news. This also benefited him because he could lie about current news so that it suited his needs better. It was there that hundreds of people built new lives.
Jim Jones made sure he was not only in charge of the town, but the church as well. He abused this power by humiliating residents publicly, bribing people, and, again, providing them with fake outsider news. They trusted their beloved leader so much that they practiced something called “White Nights”, or rehearsed mass suicides. It was there that they gathered around a vat of Kool-aid, in theory laced with cyanide, and “died.”
Jim Jones had the whole of Jonestown under his thumb, until Congressman Leo Ryan decided to interfere. It occurred to him how suspicious it was that Jim Jones left so suddenly just because of poor publicity. He suspected that the Jonestown residents might be held against their will, and therefore contacted Jim Jones and arranged a trip there. Jim Jones couldn’t refuse, otherwise he’d look more suspicious than he already was.
Jones leapt into action immediately. He told the residents that they were to be inspected, but if they remained calm and said how they truly enjoyed life at Jonestown, it would all be okay. It was an ingenious move, and it almost worked. Congressman Ryan was oblivious to Jones’ true nature until after Ryan made his speech to the Jonestown residents that Jonestown was the utopian society it claimed to be, and he’d be reporting that information to everybody back home. He was just exiting when somebody slipped him a note begging Congressman Ryan to take him back to America with him.
Unfortunately, an unsuspecting youth who, like the rest of Jonestown residents, had already been forbidden to give Ryan any notes, saw this. He started shouting about the letter and soon everybody knew about it.
Congressman Ryan demanded that anybody who wished to ride back to America should step forward, and a small number of brave residents did just that. Again, Jim Jones had no choice. Soon Congressman Ryan left for the airstrip, to board a plane at Port Kaituma, a couple miles from Jonestown and the easiest way out of it.
At the airstrip, the congressional party came under attack from Temple gunmen, and Ryan and four others were killed. Ryan remains the only Congressman killed in office ever. To this day, nobody knows whether or not Jim Jones ordered this attack.
The White Nights Jim Jones so carefully planned suddenly turned to a reality. Hundreds of Jones’ citizens stepped forward and drank the poisoned Kool-aid. Armed guards were positioned to help “encourage” people to take the Kool-aid. Jim Jones used the same excuse as he did to get everybody to come and create a life in the middle of the jungle with him: the whites would abuse them if they didn’t. They had to die before Ryan had a chance to go and inform authorities to torture them. This was another mistruth Jim Jones pledged. Jones himself was shot and killed. Again, this is one of the many mysteries of Jonestown: nobody knew if this was a murder or suicide. In all, hundreds of victims died, almost all from cyanide poison, and one other person shot.
We can’t undo what was done in Guyana, but we can prevent it from ever happening again in the future. You need to be cautious and aware of the next Jim Jones out there. That’s what the saying “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” means, which is a constantly underestimated message. Jonestown is proof of that.