When first trying to choose a topic for this year’s National History Day theme of leadership, Raelynn and I contemplated people’s perception of what that meant. Most, if not all, would think of a triumphant and gracious leader who inspired positive change over whomever they influenced. Few people consider that leaders can leave a negative legacy. Jim Jones is the quintessential veiled leader: he seemed to inspire otherworldly progress while actually instilling a philosophy of hate for conventional values in his followers. His legacy left a path of despair and destruction that spanned two continents. We thought this would be an edgy topic and put an interesting spin on the theme for this year.
We began our research by watching a documentary that told the entire story of Peoples Temple and incorporated interviews of surviving former members. We also compiled a list of notable members to further research while seeking quotes and facts that we thought should be added into our script. We then found the SDSU website that contained everything from the Death Tape to handwritten letters from Jonestown residents. It became evident that the Temple documented everything they did, including video and audio recordings. After we listened to a few, we began to fully grasp the sway that Jones had over his members. All of these contributed to the validation of information included in our script writing.
After successfully passing District National History Day, we were able to incorporate critiques from the judges to further improve our topic. With more research and some alterations of our script, our performance became ready to show at State National History Day.
A performance seemed to be the best way to convey the psychological effect that Jones had on his followers. Our English teacher also encouraged us to venture into this category. Because of our own backgrounds, we felt that we could demonstrate the diversity that existed in the Temple. Movement is easily shown through performance which is integral to our concept due to the change of setting. Altogether, we knew that the combination of emotional and factual content would resonate with our audience, which is why we chose a performance.
Our topic relates well with this year’s National History Day theme. Jim Jones’ leadership and legacy is still impactful today, especially in the study of cults. He was a charismatic minister who attracted followers with his messages of justice and freedom, and who convinced many of them to join him in a foreign land. He was a leader who evolved from an advocate of those principles to an isolating, fear-mongering killer.
Thirty-five years later, good and bad effects are visible: this past November, human ashes from Jonestown were found at an abandoned funeral home in Delaware; and Jackie Speier, the former aide to Congressman Leo Ryan who herself was shot multiple times, is now a congresswoman serving the same district in California.
Jim Jones created one of history’s most significant losses of US civilian lives, proving that leadership does not guarantee a legacy without harm and loss.
(Logan W. and Raelynn P. are students at Morrison High School in Morrison, Oklahoma.)