Jonestown as Continuum

Thirty-nine years after its implosion, there is, or ought to be, some space to look at Peoples Temple and its settlement in Guyana, shorn of its unforgettable implosion, but as a special case of human migration. This feature is uncontested and undeniable. The Temple’s founder and acknowledged leader, and its ardent destroyer, Reverend Jim Jones, whether consciously or not, demonstrated one thing in this peculiar migration. Just as the early European settlers fleeing from religious persecution in uncivilized Europe, in the wake of Columbus and the conquistadores, had found refuge on the vast continent of North America, and by any means profitable, including genocide, conquest and enslavement, had established an empire “from sea to shining sea” so their practice bred in that empire millions of outcasts and outsiders.

Thousands of those same outcasts have been willing – within and beyond the empire’s borders – to run from it like one of Shakespeare’s chosen clowns “as far as God has any ground.” Where there was no longer any of God’s free ground, they were willing to take to the ocean in search of something that suggested freedom. There were among the founding fathers and their successors like Lincoln, intelligent Whites who did not see the possibility of African descendants, Black people, living in the same space as their own “kith and kin.”

Anxious to set up for themselves a state in which they would not be second class citizens, an initial colony of African descendants from the US, with the critical help of the US government, established Liberia, a US client republic in West Africa. It not only duplicated the state structure of Washington DC. it opened a book of Silence regarding the indigenous people, on whose institutions the “new” Liberia was superimposed. Black Africans governing other Africans in a government designed in the United States, based on inequality.

Under varying conditions in the 19th and the 20th centuries, millions of immigrants entered the United States of America, drawn by certain pull factors and impelled by intolerable push factors in their homelands. There have been restrictions and barriers to immigration, largely based on country of origin but ultimately on ethnic concerns. It was the civil rights movement that helped to bring about the removal of many of these ethnical racial impediments to immigration, very often only to create a situation in which the incoming immigrants were among the most insensitive to the various ways in which and by which Native Americans and descendants of Africans have been forced to remind the world of their humanity.

By questioning hospitality managers and others during her visit to Asia, Tchaiko Kwayana, my beloved recently-deceased wife, thought she found one reason why many immigrants arrived in the USA, fully aware of the disrespect with which some citizens were treated.

Many arrived full of the stereotypes exported by Hollywood and other agencies of the dominant classes. Tchaiko Kwayana, as teacher, expended much energy in trying to re-educate against the many ways in which the psychosis of superiority was spread and sustained. She would point out that some eminent persons, with no knowledge of US social history, could pronounce on the gap in educational achievement, which shows the continuous lagging behind of Hispanics, native Americans and African Americans in the school system. Those are some of the features of this highly stratified society that do not help establish equal respect, equal opportunity, and equal prosperity.

The founder of Peoples Temple conceived the form of the organization as a church for reasons he has not stated, but some of them are obvious. A church offered a wide area of protection from harassment, while at the same time enjoying giving a kind of trust and prestige not enjoyed by the average political organization. In short, it was able to be active in human rights while speaking in the name of God. Yet, the main objective as well as the main achievement of Peoples Temple was the association of Whites and Blacks in the same organization and in an atmosphere free from ethnic conflict. It became clear in Jonestown that the choice of church was strategic. This does not detract from Peoples Temple’s activity. Once in Jonestown, Jones allowed the church features to wither away like Engels’s State.

The fact that Jim Jones was influenced by the success of Father Divine’s Peace Mission movement does not detract from the Temple’s success in that regard. Some analysts and critics saw Peoples Temple as an instrument of US intelligence, while Soviet intelligence in Guyana claims that a church had succeeded where the Communist Party had failed.

The personality of Jim Jones came out mainly in the mass rallies mounted nightly by Jim Jones, suggesting that Jonestown had not a leadership, but a Leader.

Few organizations have had to endure the scrutiny that Peoples Temple and Jonestown have endured and experienced in the full glare of public opinion. Our theme being human migration, it is time to ask without the credentials of a historian whether Peoples Temple made a unique contribution to the record in quantity or quality of human migration.

The migrations noted in history or other literature have been uniformly ethnic, with an ethnic bond as the cementing factor binding the migrants. The audacious story of Noah in the Hebrew scriptures begins as a natural disaster with a single family evacuated, and ends with a series of unexplained migrations that suggest a kind of anthropology, assigning for some readers specific racial types to specific lands. Some migrations were invasions and should be called by the proper name, whether it was Moors into Europe or Arabs into Africa. The well-known ones of the 20th century, after India’s independence, for the creation of Pakistan, Israel, and Bangladesh, were full Beva, the same stunt of ethnic solidarity.

The second half of the 20th century was the period of Peoples Temple and its movement into Guyana. This migration to Guyana was not done not for the improvement of this group’s solidarity. Compared with many other movements, it was not a large migration. And it’s hardly marked by quantitative and qualitative differences from previous migrations. Peoples Temple had developed a bi-racial movement in Northern California, and when it moved to Guyana, it remained Black and White. Jones’ very features, with the public face and primary leader being white with a Black majority, was more concerned with a non-segregated life with equal rights and respect than with leadership roles. This reality, without direct interviews such as conducted with survivors by this writer, justified the scholars’ early comparison of its structure with that of a slave plantation.

The paranoia which deprived Jonestown residents in general of ordinary freedoms has been examined elsewhere. Purely as a migration movement, however, Peoples Temple has made a contribution to history. Even allowing for unrecorded incidents of racial defensiveness, it was a movement that united members of two races in the USA and in their new home. These two races maintained a relationship to the end, and they were comfortable living with each other. The chapter in my book titled “Solving US Race Problems Abroad” made the argument about the futility of such an attempt outside of the society. In this article, the point made is that, purely as a migration movement, it was a unique achievement which I may be permitted to describe as a contribution. Even though Jim Jones was the main architect, it was a collective achievement, a venture impossible without the common purpose and determination of hundreds.

The unique feature of this migration is, in one aspect, a rebuke. The racist traditions of the USA did not impress world opinion positively. The reason it has not earned its due recognition as a path-breaking departure from past migrations is that it was hard to detach it from the way its architect sacrificed it on November 18, 1978.

(Eusi Kwayana, a Guyanese leader who was active in forming several of the country’s political parties during its struggle for independence from Great Britain, has published his reflections on the Jonestown tragedy and its impact upon his country. Reviews of A New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective, published by Carib House in Los Angeles in 2016, appear here.)