The task of determining the legacy of Peoples Temple and Jonestown is not simple. You cannot merely look at the last day – November 18, 1978 – and put a label. Determinations of legacy will depend in the future on the person in position to make that call. In some cases, like Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., it would be simpler. On the horrific side, it might be just as easy to discuss the legacy of Hitler or even Jim Jones. Immediately after that fateful day, with shrouds over the bodies of the victims, the legacy was simple. It was the biggest incidence of loss of life of Americans outside of a war zone. The legacy of that day will never ever go away, even with the attacks of 9/11 and other events over the past 40 years.
But it would be a mistake to conflate the legacy of Peoples Temple with that of Jim Jones or that of final day. It is true, Jones inspired the embryonic growth of Peoples Temple – much of it by hiding his private demons and earnestly pitching his “public persona” – but he created a visualization of what many of us wanted. He then put us to work by being a strict taskmaster, to accomplish it. As Peoples Temple thrived, his own dysfunction grew as well. His path, and his legacy, branched off from that of the Temple itself.
I do know that much of the legacy of Peoples Temple is the remembrance of the final day. I can see that too. But there is more.
For myself – and I always just speak for myself – there was a much greater and continuing legacy. Peoples Temple members were active, passionate, and dedicated to making the world better. Many members worked long hours to accomplish as much as possible in each day. And we accomplished so very much. I know I saw my dream come true. I lived in an adopted family with people of all ages, all races, all educational and socioeconomic levels. I helped people in concrete ways every day. It was an efficient organization that could – and did – direct me in a way to help. I wrote letters to Judges, Probation Officers, Lawyers, and inmates to put in a good word for an accused or convicted family member, or a friend of Peoples Temple members. I helped when someone needed to get someone off of drugs, or needed counseling, or needed Get Well letters, or needed a friend. I supported people who were talented but lost. And just as I supported others, so I was supported. That part of the legacy was that Peoples Temple collected the best people I have ever known. To this day, some of my best friends are my Peoples Temple friends who survived.
Peoples Temple was able to accomplish a lot in its short life. Over about 20 years, people learned that, with dedication and focus, communities could move from Indiana, to California, and to Guyana, and that they would construct caring communities along the way. We were exemplary because our country was segregated and we were definitely not. Our inclusion of everyone, except racists, was a new statement and we flaunted it. Martin Luther King once said that the most segregated time in America was at 11 AM on Sundays. For many of the members of PT, that was abhorrent. But it wasn’t just the churches that were divided. Schools, neighborhoods, police departments, professions, leadership of the government, and Ivy League universities were commonly segregated. We fought it at every level in every way we could, and as an organization, as a body, as an institution, we succeeded.
I feel a responsibility to honor those who died in this effort. I think I can affect the legacy of Peoples Temple by documenting everything I can, and making that information available to researchers and scholars who will make a determination of the “Legacy of Peoples Temple,” both now and in the future.
The greatest legacy of Peoples Temple can be seen in the dialogue among the survivors. We are all colors, all opinions, all backgrounds. We provided the hands, hearts and heads in making a new inclusive community. We did it in every location. Our differences did not separate us then. They unified us and enriched us, and motivated us. Even today – although we think, act, feel differently about many issues pertaining to Peoples Temple and the paths we have taken since – we still feel the strength of the Temple’s original name of Community Unity.
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)