When most people think of Jonestown, they don’t really think of leadership and legacy. They might think about how 900 people blindly followed a man to their deaths. They might focus on how crazy it was for Jim Jones to have control over so many people. However, in my opinion, Peoples Temple started out as a beautiful vision. They showed leadership in their journey and, in the end, left a lasting legacy.
In my research on Peoples Temple, I looked at many different aspects of the group. I quickly learned that the group did not start out as a cult, ready to kill themselves at any moment, and that’s not the way they ended either. Peoples Temple started with Jim forming a church that reached out to the community in many ways. It gained a diverse group of followers who shared a vision with him. The members worked to make that vision a reality, to put together enough resources to build their own community in the jungles of Guyana. By building this community, the group would be able to live in a communistic way free of racism, sexism, and hate.
After the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, or Jonestown, was completed, Jim and his group went to go live in Guyana. Aside from the cramped living conditions and rationed food, Jonestown was a working community full of people happy with their creation. Soon after their arrival in Guyana, Jim started to change both physically and mentally due to the many drugs he was taking. The effect of these drugs on Jim also had an enormous effect on the community. The once-exultant atmosphere changed to one of fear. Some followers wanted to leave, but Jim made it virtually impossible.
On November 18, 1978, Jim, in a drug-induced state, told his followers all was lost and that they needed to commit mass suicide in order to finally live in peace. Over 900 people died that day by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid. This act left the world with the legacy of the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-aid,” meaning not to blindly follow.
This may be Peoples Temple’s only legacy for most people, but after interviewing some of the survivors from this group and researching it for a year, I have come to a different understanding. This group taught me that it is possible to achieve happiness in my beliefs even if society is against them, that it is possible to forget about the past and become a better person, and that it is possible to live amongst one another in harmony even though we are all so diverse. Although Jim lost sight of his vision, in the end his followers did not, and their deaths have taught us not only to not blindly follow, and that over 900 people shouldn’t have to die for something the world should already be able to achieve, which is equality.
(Kelsey Kerrigan is an 8th grade student at South Middle School in Joplin, Missouri. She created her exhibit on Jonestown as her National History Day project.)