Jim Jones on Appropriating Black Panther Party Rhetoric for Power

by Tierney Grisolano

(Tierney Grisolano is currently a Research Assistant at the Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa. This paper was written in completion of a graduation requirement in Religion at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She may be contacted at tgrisolano3@gmail.com.)

A First Glance

Arriving at Drake University I had not intended on studying religion or even learning about Jonestown. To be completely honest, I did not have any previous knowledge of Peoples Temple, Jonestown, or Jim Jones. After taking one religion class at Drake University, I discovered my interest in religious studies. Upon this discovery, I decided to pursue a religion minor. Shortly thereafter, I became increasingly involved in religious projects at Drake. This involvement led to my pursuit of a religion major. During my second year at Drake, I enrolled in a Jonestown course where we studied the life of Jim Jones before, during, and at the end of Jonestown. We also studied various primary sources through the San Diego State University Jonestown website, and a database of Jonestown primary sources that we were assigned to transcribe. Throughout this course, I wondered how Jonestown came to be such a large group so incredibly devoted to their leader. I wondered how they could let their leader manipulate them for so long, all the way until their death, murder, or suicide. I wondered why nobody said anything when he humiliated individuals in front of the congregation for punishment. I wondered why nobody confronted him as he used his power to sexually manipulate members of the congregation. I wonder how he accumulated so much loyalty from this group of people.

As my questions concerning Jonestown accumulated, my interest to learn more drastically grew. The more I learned about Jim Jones and Jonestown, the more I realized the way in which he changed to please different people. He was very versatile to members’ needs. Jones consistently told members what they needed to hear and acted in any type of role that they wanted. He tested members’ loyalty through a variety of ways to make sure that his followers truly believed in him and would remain by his side.

During this period of time, radical groups were fighting segregation and the capitalistic nation. One of these groups, the Black Panther Party (BPP), was established by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The BPP fought against the system of inequality in the United States that disadvantaged and constantly worked against people of color. The initial efforts to fight for integration, for people of color to be in power, and to take down the capitalistic society were similar between the BPP and Peoples Temple. While Jim Jones modeled some of Peoples Temple initial efforts from Huey Newton and the BPP, over time Jones appropriated BPP rhetoric in various, inconsistent contexts to gain control and loyalty over his followers.

I will begin with a brief summary of the start, the growth, the transition, and the end of Jonestown.

A Brief Summary, Start to End[1]

In May of 1931, James Warren Jones was born in Crete, Indiana. Jim’s father, a World War I veteran, was not very present in his life, while his mother was a hard worker, getting a variety of jobs to support the family. Although both parents were often mentally absent (his father) or physically absent (his mother), Jim was an excellent student. However, he attempted to fill his loneliness by making friends with animals and calling neighborhood children over to preach to them. His “outsider” feelings and behaviors and his calling to teach others led him to start his own church. He first started Community Union in Indianapolis in 1954, then shortly after, helped incorporate the Wings of Deliverance new religious group. Upon settling in Indianapolis, they called themselves Peoples Temple.

Within Peoples Temple, Jones advocated for equality and pushed for interracial congregations. The congregation put together a meal program, volunteered their time, and advocated for integrated congregations in other churches. In his efforts he accepted the role as the director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission in 1961. In this role he pushed for integration in public places like hospitals and movie theaters. Jones took a leave of absence from the church for about two years. During this time Peoples Temple struggled. Some members of the congregation moved to Ukiah, California. Here, they settled in Redwood Valley where they began to fulfill their mission as a collective economy in which members were responsible for contributing part of their funds or land to the group. The group expanded to San Francisco and Los Angeles and became very popular, as there were not churches like Jones’ that would allow an interracial congregation.

During the time of Peoples Temple’s expansion, the group’s efforts expanded as well. They were involved in various political efforts starting in Indianapolis and continuing in California, one of which was the mayoral election in San Francisco in 1975, during which members heavily supported the liberal candidate, George Moscone, by attending Democratic events. Their active supported of Moscone had a domino effect: members supported multiple politically-related organizations, such as the Zimbabwe African National Union, American Indian Solidarity, South Africa’s Pan African Congress.

With growth, Jones began to implement socialist ways of life. They established a community, sharing land and wealth, working extreme hours, and sometimes eating very little. The environment within the church was changing, too. Meetings, called catharsis sessions,in which members would confess wrong-doings so that the congregation could punish them, then forgive the wrong-doers would begin. There were “healings” where Jones had individuals perform so that the congregation would think that he cured paralysis or restored a blind man’s eyesight. Jones claimed to be God and the ultimate socialist in nearly every sermon. His tests for loyalty increased and his chosen members that served as council to him were very closely knit, keeping Jones’ secrets.

Jones began to realize that his ideal community was not attainable in the United States. His congregation could not escape racism, nor could he escape the publicity regarding Peoples Temple. In 1977, the congregation began their move to Guyana, an English-speaking country in the Western hemisphere – but away from the States – with a socialist government. The community was called Jonestown.

Jonestown was built over time, including living spaces, an education system, a doctor, a clinic, a pavilion for meetings, and crops for food. Individuals left their families to help create this socialist community away from the United States’ capitalist pressures. As time went on, Peoples Temple members’ communication with family members became increasingly difficult. Jones demanded more loyalty from his followers and initiated more White Nights, or suicide drills, testing their loyalty to die for their cause. He greatly distanced Jonestown from the United States. Soon after, relatives of individuals in Jonestown became worried. A coalition called the Concerned Relatives formed to hold Jim Jones responsible for manipulating their family members into moving Guyana, as well as limiting their communication with family members. They wanted the US government to go to Jonestown to bring people back home and to arrest Jim Jones for treating congregation members poorly. There were many complications with the limitations that the United States government had in terms of power in Guyana. Congressman Leo Ryan from California decided to visit Guyana, to examine Jonestown and see that all people were faring well.

In November 1978, Ryan and an entourage of media and relatives went to visit Jonestown. While there, they noticed singing, dancing, happiness, and praise to Jim Jones. However, to some, this must have been an act, because the evening before Ryan and his group left, a resident of Jonestown slipped Ryan a note explaining the member’s wish to return to the United States with the congressional party. The next morning Ryan spoke with Jones, who claimed he would let anyone go back to the United States if they wished to leave. He claimed that no one was or had been prevented from leaving. The accounts that were told to Ryan by members were all lies, according to Jones.

Ryan and his group traveled to a jungle airstrip to leave, but as they boarded their plane, an assassination team from Jonestown launched an attack. Ryan and four others died in the assault. Back at the community, Jones was preparing for the true White Night – the drinking of Flavor-Aid cyanide; the “revolutionary suicide” to exemplify the ache for over 900 lives to escape the inequalities and injustices in the United States. On this day, Jim Jones’ last sermon was explaining the need for “revolutionary suicide.” He alluded to his followers’ loyalty in him and can be heard coaxing many members to “take care” of their children by pouring the cyanide down their throats. On November 18, 1978, 909 individuals – a third of them being children – partook in the “revolutionary suicide” in Guyana.[2]

Throughout the history of Jonestown, from the start to the end, the initial group that fought for equal rights dramatically changed. The congregation’s focus shifted from integration and a church where all were welcome, to a congregation with the focus on being true, honest followers and believers of Jim Jones.

No to Racism

Jim Jones’ religious and/or political presence extended from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. During this time there was much societal unrest due to inequalities, resulting in the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation was heavily enforced, separating people of color from white people in public areas: restaurants, restrooms, churches. Similar to the BPP and Huey Newton, Jones heavily advocated for equality for people of color. Likewise, both relentlessly fought racism. Jones believed in equality for all through his concept of a socialist society:

I represent divine principle, total equity, a society where people own all things in common. Where there is no rich or poor. Where there are no races. Wherever there is people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am. And there I am involved.[3]

Peoples Temple consisted of a range of members from various socioeconomic statuses, different religious backgrounds, with differing levels of education, some joining as families and some joining alone. Over two-thirds of the congregation consisted of African Americans, with well over half being females.[4]

Jim Jones commonly spoke about his support for integration and equal rights. He frequently used the New Testament book of Acts as a biblical example of an equal community within the congregation, a teaching he coined as apostolic socialism. Within Peoples Temple there are many accounts of African American individuals expressing comfort by being integrated in the church, with Jim Jones as leader. Members felt relief in this integrated space, without worry of discrimination. The following are some of the testimonies from people of color within the congregation:

A rainbow of friends. Friends of different colors, nationalities. The innocence and the beauty of children. Children I had the pleasure and honor of growing up with…We were the future; we were going to save the world.[5]

It allowed me, as a black man, to hold my head up high.[6]

There was an interracial group. The choir was interracial and they used to sing this song – ‘Never heard a man speak like this man before…All the days of my life, ever since I been born, I never head a man speak like this man before.’ After they sang one or two songs, the whole place was lit up.[7]

He advocated heavily for integrated churches to spread and emphasized the importance of diversity and what each person had to offer to society. Furthermore, Jones was appealing to people of color, as he referred to himself as having had similar experiences: “I had early developed a sensitivity for the problems of blacks, too probably feeling as an outcast.”[8] Jones felt as outsider through his childhood, bringing him to perceive this shared experience or “sensitivity,” as he stated, to discrimination in society. These claims and his empathy drove his desire for an integrated congregation, as well as his socialist viewpoints throughout his life. Additionally, these claims also helped to create a comfortable atmosphere where people of color felt welcome and expressed their joy to be able to come to a congregation without being judged for the color of their skin, and further, a congregation where people of color were the majority of congregation members.

Not only did he describe his experiences – and even himself – as black, he heavily emphasized the beauty and need of black presence in Peoples Temple; “Now I feel that we need blacks with power, and we need black identity, and we need to have a determination that nobody’s going to walk over us.” Directly after stating this, he highlighted that they must oppose violence: “…but we should not let violence get out of control…and that’s what some of our people are doing today, they’re letting violence get out of control.”[9] He viewed the system of capitalism as working against people of color, disadvantaging to a point of oppression they should not have to face, acknowledging unfair treatment in employment and education and society. These progressive views, yet with caution to radical action, show Jones’ initial views that drew many people to Peoples Temple’s doors.

Even on a personal level Jim Jones exhibited familial integration. During a time where mixed-racial families were frowned upon, Jones and his wife Marceline adopted children from Korean and African-American backgrounds.[10] They were the first white couple in Indiana to adopt an African American child. He seemed to pride himself on the diversity by referring to his family as the “Rainbow Family.” It seemed that he adopted in a way that “reaffirmed their commitment to the ‘rainbow family.’”[11] Not only did he need to prove to his congregation that he significantly cared for all people, but that he was willing to incorporate all people into his family – just as he constantly told his congregation that they were also his family.

Throughout his fight for equal rights and methods to incorporate these values into his personal life, he repeatedly spoke about understanding every member of his congregation and their experiences. He thoroughly spoke of Huey Newton in high regards for what he and the BPP fought for, even if at times he abused their rhetoric. The BPP fought for equal rights and more specifically, Black Power and representation.

The BPP was established by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 shortly after Malcolm X’s assassination, to combat racism and specifically, police brutality.[12] Through their Ten-Point Program,[13] modeled from Malcolm X’s “What the Muslims Want,” the BPP demanded freedom, increased employment for black people, the end of the “robbery” from white capitalism, an immediate end to the brutality from police officers, and ultimately, evidence of the rights and freedoms promised to all American citizens including black people (since they only seemed evident for whites). After the ten points, they elaborate with ten beliefs that correlate to the points respectively.[14] Just as the BPP argued for equality and for an end to the poor treatment Black people and people of color have faced since the times of slavery, Jim Jones argued for an end to unequal treatment and discrimination. As the BPP argued for Black Power through employment, leadership, and equal rights, Jones argued for Black Power and black identity to create a strength to fight discrimination and the capitalist, white supremacist society. As the BPP argued against the system of capitalism advantaging whites and disadvantaging people of color, Jones often mentioned the negative impacts of capitalism.

Through his claimed values, Jones took action to fight for equality. At the early stages of Peoples Temple, they worked at providing for and supporting those in poverty – through offerings of food and clothes. Even more, Jones’ wife, Marceline, created The Free Restaurant where individuals could eat meals for free. Jones also emphasized the importance of an integrated church, going to all lengths to make sure that everyone in Peoples Temple felt welcome. Additionally, while fighting for the integration of races in public places, they created a service that helped employ many African Americans. In Rebecca Moore’s words, “while it’s the kind of action some churches engage in today, it was innovative – even radical – for the 1950s.” Through these efforts, Jim and Marceline Jones pushed Peoples Temple to integrate and help those in need. They pushed for action towards equality during a time of heavy segregation when it was not socially acceptable. Equality for all was a main goal for Peoples Temple.[15]

Despite their similar perspectives on discrimination and the need for people of color to be in positions of power with equal rights for all, Peoples Temple began to exhibit signs of hypocrisy. Although the congregation was 80-90% African American, nearly two-thirds of the leadership was white. There was some unrest about this within the congregation. New white members were drafted into leadership positions quickly, whereas black members who had been faithful, loyal, and giving to the congregation for years were not given leadership positions. With the transition in reflecting their efforts within the congregation, a few young members became upset. The hypocrisy of promoting white members while emphasizing the need for equal rights, as well as the congregation’s shift to internal sexual relations unlike the socialism they knew, and that Jones taught, a few members had had enough.

In 1973, eight Peoples Temple members defected from the community. The eight young individuals, later referred to as the eight revolutionaries, wrote a letter to Jones in which they highlighted the reasons they left, namely, the staff – which they heavily distinguished from Jones himself. They made sure to emphasize that they were not angry with Jones and they did not think that he caused any issues, but rather, with staff members making the important congregational decisions.

This young group described changes within the congregation that relate to the changes within the efforts of Peoples Temple, shifting the meaning of revolutionary suicide. First, the group examined the ways in which sexual intercourse had affected the community, specifically with the staff. The revolutionaries’ letter discussed, with disgust, the ways that sexual intercourse was required “in order to be loyal”[16] to Jim Jones. They believed that the community should be willing to give up sex, as these revolutionaries had, simply because of socialism. They even alluded to a specific black member having been taken advantage of, ruining his image to the church and to himself. Collectively, their main attack on the sexual relationships with staff and members and Jones was criticizing of the staff’s ways at proving loyalty, which was unfair and unequal.

Second, they argued that there should have been black leadership. Jones would speak of needing Black Power and black people recognized in society, yet he continually put white people in leadership roles in the Temple. Suspiciously, they highlighted the fact that those in power were upper middle class whites who have made mistakes in leadership or were in sexual relationships with members, other staff, or Jones. Not only were newer white members put directly in leadership roles, leaving the black members without leadership no matter their membership and loyalty, but those put in power were inadequately handling the decision-making responsibilities. In concluding this point, they discussed this hypocrisy and abuse of power:

How can there be sound trust from black people if there’s only white nitpicking staff. Hungrily taking advantage of a chance to castrate black men. The staff jumps at such an opportunity because their [they’re] perverted and threatened. Staff creates so much guilt in males that it break their spirit of revolution (if they have any). The blacks who take it, do so because they think you approve, they think you care. They also think you will zap them dead if they don’t give in.[17]

They emphasized that because of the white hierarchy within the church, just as in the unfair capitalist society Jones claimed to oppose, black members felt inferior and unable to speak up about these inequalities. They assumed that speaking up might prevent any future possibilities for leadership promotion. Furthermore, the eight revolutionaries observed that Peoples Temple was not following through with their promises and initial efforts concerning socialism. The revolutionaries noticed this not only through the inequalities within leadership, but also with the inconsistency of the staff’s rhetoric and actions.

Evidently, the eight revolutionaries revealed the changes beginning within Peoples Temple. The staff was mostly white, despite their efforts that claimed they wished for people of color to be in power. There were more loyalty tests that seemed to be out of character for an all-accepting, loving church. The need to die together became a new sort of goal for the congregation that was highly significant at the Temple’s demise. With this shift in attitude of the congregation, some left; however, many stayed, despite the change in methodology to reach goals, the need for proof of loyalty, and the constant change in rhetoric to arrive with the entire congregation in favor of “revolutionary suicide.”

Jones’ Inconsistency with and Appropriation of Rhetoric

Huey Newton coined the concept of “revolutionary suicide” with the beliefs and calls for immediate action of the BPP in mind.

Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us, we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death. We will have to be driven out with a stick.[18]

This term is not to be confused with “reactionary suicide,” or to describe the BPP members as suicidal. Reactionary suicide is described as succumbing to external, social factors. In the examples of black individuals oppressed, should their dignity be stolen, they are left in a sense of hopelessness leading them to end their own lives. Many individuals would say that the BPP members could be seen as suicidal in the sense of risking their lives and putting themselves into situations where they knew they may die. The Black Panthers accept that premise, but described their involvement with revolutionary suicide in this way: in revolutionary suicide, members fight the oppression, maintain their dignity, and as the BPP believes, fight for the dignity of all black individuals and the oppressed. In his book Revolutionary Suicide, Newton emphasizes that revolutionary Che Guevera explained that, “a revolutionary death is the reality and victory is the dream.”[19]The BPP intended to fight for the rights of black people, and die fighting if necessary, understanding that an end to the fight would likely not come in their lifetime.

Jim Jones commonly used Newton’s term, revolutionary suicide, through inconsistent mention and context. These changes in the use of the concept correlated with shifts in the congregation’s attitude and decision-making. The eight revolutionaries’ letter made some of those shifts evident. They stated that the initial socialist beliefs and claims about Peoples Temple seemed nonexistent as the congregation had grown and spread: “For the past 6 years all staff have concern[ed] themselves with – have been the castrating of people, calling them homosexual, sex, sex, sex. What about Socialism?…how does 99 ½% of Peoples Temple manage to know zero about Socialism?”[20] Criticizing the Temple, they asked why there was no youth group, why there were no more socialist meetings, why there were no more urges to read: “Why are there no black men or women with a revolutionary attitude coming into Peoples Temple?…There’s no revolutionary teachings being taught the way it use to.”[21] The revolutionaries alluded to the fact that Jones claimed that there would be “revolutionary suicide” and a revolution in the same way that Newton and the BPP wanted a revolution to change the mistreatment of people of color and segregation in the capitalist nation. The revolutionaries explained that although revolution and revolutionary suicide were mentioned, the efforts for Peoples Temple had changed and the inconsistencies of Jones using the BPP rhetoric supported this change. They highlighted the unreliability and hypocrisy of the top tier in charge of Peoples Temple, explaining that they were the reason that Peoples Temple has changed – the reason the congregation changed and began to support revolutionary suicide in a different way than Newton had intended, also different from the way that Jones initially referred to revolutionary suicide.

And indeed, Jones was very inconsistent with his use of the concept “revolutionary suicide” or “revolutionary act.” These words appeared in numerous sermons throughout Peoples Temple’s time, including the Death Tape – the last tape of Jones of November 18, 1978. Jones appropriated the BPP’s concept in the manner he felt he could through his position of power. Just as Jones made Peoples Temple whatever it needed to be for congregation members, just as Jones would play any role congregation members wished, he spoke about “revolutionary suicide” in whichever context he could to solidify members’ loyalty: “Jim Jones and other members of Peoples Temple had a history of taking the rhetoric of others and using it for their own purposes.”[22]

Much of what Jones said and did was for the people of Peoples Temple to follow him and trust him. These methods were questionable because of their manipulating fashions and the loyalty tests soon became suicide drills to supposedly emulate his idea of revolutionary suicide. The initial mentions and meanings of “revolutionary suicide” changed with the intensity of loyalty tests and drills. He had what were called “healings” during services during which he would claim to be God and “cure” individuals of their ailments or physical disabilities. Essentially, Jones would stage a scene in which he played “God” and “healer” and allowed someone, who had been unable to walk for years, to walk in front of the entire congregation. In the words of Mike Cartmell, a former member of Peoples Temple:

[Jones] explained to the congregation that he was going to perform the afternoon’s healings remotely through me. On Jim’s incantation, and to the hushed astonishment of the congregants, I name three people…I did not know, told them about items in their homes, identified ailments they suffered, and pronounced them cured. As I recall, all three of them swooned and the building itself seemed to rock as the entire assembly erupted in pandemonium. To be sure, this was an extraordinary and magical moment.[23]

Yet, reflecting on these experiences, Cartmell explained that he thought “everyone knew most of the healings were fake. We just hoped, against all reason, that some were in fact ‘genuine’.” It is important to notice the devotion and loyalty that each of Peoples Temple members had for Jones. Through this devotion, he would later develop the suicide drills for members to prove their loyalty to the “revolutionary suicide” cause. Through these processes and performances, the congregation was moving towards a different kind of “revolutionary suicide” that related more to proving loyalty and devotion to Jones.

Another account of the healings of Jones was from former member Don Beck. He and his friend got married so that they could have foster children come through their home. One of the children had previously been extensively abused to the extent of losing 20% hearing in one ear and 70% hearing in the other. The doctors told Beck and his friend that the child had bone damage that was unrepairable, requiring hearing aids. During the time the boy was with Beck, he took a bus trip with Jones other Peoples Temple children. Upon the boy’s return Beck attests: “Danny got off the bus talking away, speaking clearly and understandably. It was amazing. I was just sort of staring at him when Jim walked by. He looked at me, smiled and said, ‘He’ll be fine.’ Nothing more was ever said. We had him retested: the 20% loss ear was normal, and the 70% loss was now 20% loss. Hearing was never a problem again.”[24]Beck described a miraculous recovery that was seemingly impossible, but implying that Jones was the one to thank and the one responsible for the recovery.

Through all sorts of member “healings” Jones would shock members. In numerous ways, he went to great lengths in order to gain people’s support and their loyalty, and soon enough suicide drills would be in place with the various mentions and alterations of the concept of “revolutionary suicide.” Even throughout their time at California, mentions of “revolutionary suicide” with suicide drills took place. The suicide drills and “revolutionary suicide,” as an option for the congregation, developed and became more common in their time at Jonestown.

During one of the tapes in which Jones and followers are acting as if they are being followed or soon would be attacked, Jones spoke to a small group of members about how he had been offered a way out of Guyana by Cuba: “they offered me protection, they offered me a way out. But I cannot go without you. And there’s no way we can get you out, because the rivers are blocked…Any leader that’s worth anything stands with his peoples and dies with all of his people.”[25] He alluded to dying for and with his people in a way that made this small group of followers cheer, telling them that he cares too much to leave them. He continued to allude to this confidence that they would all die together: “…to die for Guyana. We would have given our blood…it seems that many are more interested of the approval of the special interest of the ruling class in United States than they are standing up for socialism…if that’s the case, then we will die for what at least we have built here in this country.”[26] Not only did he discuss the group’s collective willingness to die for Jonestown, and energized the group to cheer for this cause, but he assumed that his group was loyal enough to him that they would all die, too. Their cheers and words of appraisal confirm this loyalty. This is evidence of how the healings and suicide drills brought their loyalty to the point of such support in Jones, even with his many uses of “revolutionary suicide.”

Through further attempts to gain the congregation’s support, Jones held White Nights. There are many different opinions on how many White Nights occurred in Jonestown, and differing accounts of those White Nights, but they generally all followed the same principles (while always mentioning their full effort to commit “revolutionary suicide”). Some allusions to White Nights were used while the congregation was still set in the United States, “to denote a crisis within Peoples Temple and the possibility of mass death during or as a result of the crisis.”[27] However, more accounts were noted during the congregation’s time in Guyana. Essentially, Jones would announce that he expected an attack, call all members to the central pavilion and explain the situation. He would see whether all members were willing to drink a fruit punch supposedly laced with poison to test their loyalty to him and their loyalty to the cause of his concept of “revolutionary suicide.” Jones would often use “revolutionary suicide” during these White Nights and contextualize the phrase in many different manners, appropriating the phrase to test people’s loyalty and sometimes to nearly convince them to follow his orders.

A tape from a White Night in February of 1978 is an example of one use of “revolutionary suicide.” A female advisor began by discussing issues with their community involving licensing their doctor, accrediting the school, and other issues developing the community. Jones automatically turned to the United States as the enemy. During the tape, when describing the consequences to falling asleep during the White Night, members discussed what might happen: “You know it’s a White Night…and…you shouldn’t be going to sleep, ‘cause you know what happened to…Kenny…coulda been on Learning Crew.”[28] Elaborating on this female member’s words, Jones said, “it ain’t pleasant…but my God, somebody’s gotta fight this revolution…you’ll sleep late tomorrow, you can be assured.”[29] He continued to explain that they must review their plans in the case that they were under some sort of attack. Recognize that although there is a lack of cheering during the tape during this time, the members were present, participating, and listening to Jones. They cared if there were consequences and cared whether or not they were on the Learning Crew, or on specific committees or in certain leadership positions. They were still scared about the power Jones had, and were scared of talking against Jones’ views because of that power – just as the defectors expressed their recognition of this fear in the congregation. Members cared about their place in the community, and seemingly understood that they needed escape routes or backup plans because Jones had engrained preparation for attack in their brains. The group discussed options of what to do, but Jones seemed to dismiss many of those options, leaving “revolutionary suicide” as the only option left. He clarified his meaning of revolutionary suicide, almost making it seem not only their last possible option, but almost as desirable in comparison to the latter, impossible, proposed options:

Not suicide. Suicide’s an immoral act…Only revolutionary suicide is justified, when you consider that…there’s no way to make any moral sense out of…further fighting, because it’d be maybe black people having to kill black people…and we would lose our moral impact, and thus make a witness like other communists have made…the great leader of the revolution here made, first revolt of the slaves…That’s a revolutionary act. Rather than be taken prisoner, or go back into slavery.[30]

In this context, Jones discussed “revolutionary suicide” as the only option, rather than losing morals, or acting without their morals. Meanwhile, Newton’s definition includes a willingness to fight and sacrifice one’s life in the way a revolutionary would. Jones alluded to this definition with refusing to be unequally treated or “go back into slavery,” but then went against further fighting, claiming that those actions would cause them to “lose…moral impact.” In Newton’s case, further fighting for equality would be their “moral impact.” Jones carefully worded and contextualized revolutionary suicide in any manner that would convince members to follow him and further prove their loyalty, no matter the inconsistencies with Newton or Jones’ previous meanings of revolutionary suicide.

Continually throughout the Q135 and Q642 tapes, Jones alluded to Peoples Temple all dying together in response to these perceived threats. He further pushed “revolutionary suicide” through this socialist perspective that everyone must die together. He spoke to the members, assuming they would all participate in “revolutionary suicide,” as he framed this as the only option to escape such threats. Peoples Temple members offered other options, yet Jones framed those options in an undesirable, failing manner, manipulating members to only choose “revolutionary suicide” as a response. And as seen in the fear of consequences of falling asleep, or offering options, members were aware that Jones could demote members’ statuses, so they were hesitant to act against his wishes or argue further with Jones about escape routes. Even when discussing the “revolutionary suicide” concerning children, Jones interrogated members criticizing every option they offered until they claimed that they would give their children cyanide, or rather, “put [them] to sleep”:

Male 29: I would vote to stay here and fight and die that way.

Jones: Why not the other options? What about the other options that bother you?…

Male 29: I don’t really have any objections to the other – thing, this is the – the way I voted, and just the way I feel.

Reb: …how do you feel about…the children?…how do you figure we take care of the children, if we gone stay here and fight?

Jones: You got one, you’d know.

Male 29: I certainly don’t want – I don’t want my daughter to fall in the hands of the fascists…as much as I wouldn’t like it, there’s only one way to go. I would- She would have to be put to sleep.

Jones: Okay. He said, put her to sleep. Good…your father’s very humane.[31]

Jones interrogated Male 29 until he discusses how he would put his daughter “to sleep,” then Jones had praised Male 29, saying “Good…your father’s very humane.” He began to almost congratulate members on their decision to agree to taking the cyanide. The control Jones gained from the members of Peoples Temple was very strong; so strong that members would testify their experiences with Jones and the Temple to describe why they were willing to commit “revolutionary suicide,” even despite Jones’ varying uses of the concept itself, and further, despite the way the congregation had changed.

Tape Q245 is full of member testimonies where members express their intense devotion to Jones and dying together:

Hue Fortson: …we’ve come to a decision that we would rather die than to live on this earth because there is nowhere else we can go. There is nowhere else that would suit the purposes of the beautiful teachings and the life that we have that we built here in Jonestown. So we would rather commit a revolutionary suicide, and if the world’s in question about why we took our lives or why we took our babies’ or our seniors’ lives, this is why we don’t want to be involved with the mess that’s going on in this world and the mess that’s going to keep on going in this world…

Sharon Amos: My name is Sharon Amos, and I wanted to say this decision has been a verylong process because we are not a death-oriented group…In every aspects of life, the Marxist-Leninist view of total equality of women and men, no ageism, no sexism in our community here…but even when we try to work through the democratic process to bring some kind of justice and the concern about fascism, we are in a socialist country and we found inconsistencies where we are told to compromise our principles…the only way we felt that we could live as in practicing our Marxist-Leninist views, was to take our own lives…

Edith Roller: …we have been impeded, I think, by the powerful capitalist society around us, and uh, I want particularly to mention the press which never gives us …our words are not heard. I pray and hope that this tape will at least survive in portions so that they can know what we stood for. I’m glad that my death will mean something. I hope it will be an inspiration to all people that fight for freedom all over the world.[32]

These accounts heavily testify to the loyalty that each member has to Peoples Temple and the act of “revolutionary suicide.” Some explain that this was a long process and not the initial idea. The suicide drills began as loyalty beckonings but later developed into reality, where members felt that they had no other options. From the healings, to the suicide drills, to the White Nights, Peoples Temple ended with a test of loyalty; with coaxing to prove to Jones and Peoples Temple and the United States that they could no longer live where they felt that equality and socialist society was unattainable. Whether it was through this control he had accumulated, or the loyalty members had for Jones, or the loyalty that gave him control, members would do whatever Jones would say.

Quite unfortunately, this includes the fatal drinking of the cyanide in tape Q042. Upon Ryan’s arrival and the decision of several residents to leave Jonestown, Jim Jones realized he was in ultimate crisis. Therefore, on November 18, 1978, Jones led his followers in Jonestown to drink poison. He described to the congregation that it is now impossible to leave or live. He quoted the Bible to justify the acts he was about to propose, or rather, force: “It is said by the greatest of prophets from time immemorial: ‘No man may take my life from me; I lay my life down.’”[33] The crowd cheers and claps, praising Jones and his suggestions to “die in peace.”[34] He alluded to kindness in a way of allowing the elderly and child members to take the poison and die first: “my opinion is that we be kind to the children and be kind to seniors and take the portion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly, because we are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone.”[35] He gave the members no option and continued to explain to them that this is a revolutionary act. In his eyes, drinking the poison, and everyone dying would leave them at peace rather than die by Americans killing them. The trust that members had in Jones allowed him to appropriate rhetoric surrounding “revolutionary suicide” so that he could convince all and every member to follow this apostolic socialistic idea he had, that everyone dies together.

The inconsistencies of Jones using “revolutionary suicide” were so that he could convince any single person to trust him in whatever way he could. He was a persistent leader, manipulating and guiding individuals to only one decision or option in the end. In the words of Hue Fortson Jr., “He said, ‘If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father…If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.” Jim Jones would use rhetoric in whichever manner and role he needed in order to convince all members to practice together, live communally together, move to Guyana and create Jonestown together, and die together all within this apostolic socialism. In the words of Rebecca Moore, “no matter how far their leader may have strayed from his personal commitment or altered its tenets to suit his own purposes, many of Jones’ followers continued to volunteer their time and labor.”[36]

Jones’ view on Newton near end of Jonestown

Months before the tragic end of Jonestown, Jones spoke about his support for Huey Newton after a criticizing article was published about Newton and the BPP. Tape Q417 records Jones speaking to the congregation critically regarding Paul Avery and he and Kate Coleman’s article, “The Party’s Over,” which identified Newton as a sexual assailant and the Black Panthers as, “a street gang through the Oakland area.”[37] In this tape Jones heavily supported Newton and the BPP, showing his disappointment with the article and Coleman and Avery’s rhetoric against the BPP.

Before discussing his personal thoughts on the article, the BPP, and ultimately, the capitalist United States, he discredited the writer, Paul Avery. While reading the article aloud, Jones provided his own commentary. He explained that Avery “had questionable connections…high on dope and drinking all the time. So now he’s sold his soul to the white company store.”[38] Jones showed suspicion and disappointment with his perception of Avery buying into capitalism after Avery supposedly said he understood socialism and the efforts of Peoples Temple. Jones attempted to further discredit the story in the beginning of the article by bringing to the congregation’s attention that no name was provided of the woman who gave the sexual assault account.

Throughout his commentary, Jones incredulously defended Newton. Specifically, in the contexts of the article he states, “Now [Huey]’s a rapist, a kidnapper, and a thief? Anybody with a right mind can see through these lies, but people don’t, or these magazines wouldn’t…USA public has no sense.”[39] Jones showed his endless support for Newton and his disgust with the United States and Americans in general. His thorough commentary about his hatred for the United States supports his beliefs on November 18, 1978, that the people of Jonestown could not live in the United States, therefore, they could not go back to the United States. Jones continually used this fact to manipulate the congregation into accepting his fluid concept of “revolutionary suicide.” Further, his support for Newton became complicated since he continued to appropriate his rhetoric. He explained that, “anything decent about Huey will be my commentary, because this is nothing but a total smear,”[40] yet later described his appropriated “revolutionary suicide.”

Jones spoke heavily on his negative opinions regarding the United States, its government, and capitalism. He often references the capitalism with harsh comments of hatred such as, “they are a vengeful people, capitalists, white capitalists.”[41] In Jones’ eyes, their act of “revolutionary suicide” would free them from the capitalist threats, but is this truly what Newton meant? Although in Tape Q417 Jones claims, “revolutionary suicide” is an act of giving yourself – if it even sacrifices yourself – to bring down the corrupt racist capitalist system”, previously he described “revolutionary suicide” as literally an escape route from the United States. These definitions contradict each other.

Jones claimed to support Newton and his concept of revolutionary suicide, yet he often appropriated the phrase to basically complete his idea of apostolic socialism – dying together to escape the capitalist threats. Essentially, this definition implies that the people of Jonestown were succumbing to the perceived threats of capitalism and the United States, which sounds much more like reactionary suicide. With the power and followers that Jones accumulated, he used the power to please the people of his congregation. As mentioned, he would play God if that is what his people wanted, he would act as a father if that is what his people wanted, he would be a lover if that is what his people wanted. His concepts were fluid, the initiatives became fluid, and the group became completely under his control, so he felt the ability to appropriate BPP rhetoric. He described himself as equal, or possibly even a better Black Panther than Newton. In response to the money donated and funneled to the BPP, Jones announced: “Now I notice me, myself a pure socialist, nobody ever offered us any money…I had to earn it by the sweat and blood of my brow – and other things in my body.”[42] Through this, Jones implied that he was a pure socialist in comparison to Newton and the Black Panthers, explaining that he had to work hard for what he has gotten – implying that they were offered money without as strong of an effort. This entitlement and superiority Jones felt – saying that he was God, had special powers, could heal, and was the ultimate socialist that will save all of Peoples Temple from capitalism – resulted in appropriation of rhetoric from others to fuel his power and control over Peoples Temple. He spoke, assuming that the entire congregation believed in him, his words, despite his inconsistencies so often that they eventually did.

Conclusion

Jim Jones attempted to create a community and little world away from capitalism and the United States. He fully endorsed communal living and was an avid socialist, very knowledgeable regarding the Bible. Although his initial efforts were alike to Huey Newton’s and the BPP – concerning equal rights and against the capitalist system disadvantaging those who are not white males – Jones appropriated Newton’s rhetoric, specifically “revolutionary suicide,” for his own use. Despite claiming himself in absolute, overt favor of Newton, he talked about himself as equal to Newton and twisted Newton’s concepts for his own accumulation of control and power within Peoples Temple.

Bibliography

Beck, Don. “The Healings of Jim Jones.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=32369.

“Black Panthers.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2017. www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement/black-panthers.

Bloom, Joshua and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2013.

Cartmell, Mike. “Temple Healings: Magical Thinking.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=31911.

Coleman, Kate and Avery, Paul. “The Party’s Over.” New Times. Accessed December 7, 2018. http://colemantruth.net/kate8.pdf. Pdf.

Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1987.

Jones, Pinkie. “The Death of Innocence.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=33205.

“Jonestown.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/crime/jonestown.

The Jonestown Institute. “The 8 Revolutionaries (edited document).” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=14076.

The Jonestown Institute. “Q134 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27339.

The Jonestown Institute. “Q135 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27340.

The Jonestown Institute. “Q417 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=77964.

The Jonestown Institute. “Q642 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27514.

The Jonestown Institute. “Q974 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27630.

The Jonestown Institute. “Q1059-1 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27331.

The Jonestown Institute. “What are White Nights? How many of them were there?” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=35371.

PBS. “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple Program Transcript.” American Experience. https://www.tc.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/media/pdf/transcript/Jonestown_transcript.pdf.

Pick-Jones, Antoinette. “Jim Jones and the History of Peoples Temple.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018.https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=33190.

McGehee III, Fielding. “Q042 Transcript, by Fielding M. McGehee III.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29079.

Moore, Rebecca. “Before the tragedy at Jonestown, the people of Peoples Temple had a dream.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=84569.

Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009.

Moore, Rebecca. “An Update on the Demographics of Jonestown.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=70495.

Moore, Rebecca. “What is Apostolic Socialism?” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=84234.

“Race and the Peoples Temple.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 2018. Accessed December 4, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/jonestown-race/.

Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1982.

Valiente, Alexa, and Monica Delarosa. “40 Years after the Jonestown Massacre: Jim Jones’ Surviving Sons on What They Think of Their Father, the Peoples Temple Today.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 28 Sept. 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018. http://abcnews.go.com/US/40-years-jonestown-massacre-jim-jones-surviving-sons/story?id=57997006.

Yates, Bonnie. “The Many Meanings of ‘Revolutionary Suicide.’” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 7, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=31465.

Notes

[1] Information from this section was collected by the following sources:Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009; and Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1982.

[2] Information obtained from: Pick-Jones, Antoinette. “Jim Jones and the History of Peoples Temple.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018.https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=33190; “Jonestown.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/crime/jonestown; and Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009.

[3] The Jonestown Institute. “Q1059-1 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27331.

[4] Moore, Rebecca. “An Update on the Demographics of Jonestown.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=70495.

[5] Jones, Pinkie. “The Death of Innocence.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=33205.

[6] “Race and the Peoples Temple.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 2018. Accessed December 4, 2018. www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/jonestown-race/.

[7] PBS. “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple Program Transcript.” American Experience. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.tc.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/media/pdf/transcript/Jonestown_transcript.pdf.

[8] The Jonestown Institute. “Q134 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 4, 2018. http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27339.

[9] The Jonestown Institute. “Q974 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27630.

[10] Valiente, Alexa, and Monica Delarosa. “40 Years after the Jonestown Massacre: Jim Jones’ Surviving Sons on What They Think of Their Father, the Peoples Temple Today.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 28 Sept. 2018, http://abcnews.go.com/US/40-years-jonestown-massacre-jim-jones-surviving-sons/story?id=57997006.

[11] Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1987. pp 47.

[12] “Black Panthers.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2017, http://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement/black-panthers.

[13] The Ten Point Program is as follows: [Original in capital text]

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
  5. We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us out true history and our role in the present-day society.
  6. We want completely free health care for all black and oppressed people.
  7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people, other people of color, all oppressed people inside the United States.
  8. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression.
  9. We want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in the U.S. Federal, State, County, City and Military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.

Bloom, Joshua and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2013.

[14] Bloom et al.

[15] Moore, Rebecca. “Before the tragedy at Jonestown, the people of Peoples Temple had a dream.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=84569.

[16] The Jonestown Institute. “The 8 Revolutionaries (edited document).” Accessed December 4, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=14076.

[17] Bloom et al.

[18] Newton, Huey P. Revolutionary Suicide. 1973. Reprint, New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009. p. 3.

[19] Newton.

[20] Bloom et al.

[21] Bloom et al.

[22] Yates, Bonnie. “The Many Meanings of ‘Revolutionary Suicide.’” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 7, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=31465.

[23] Cartmell, Mike. “Temple Healings: Magical Thinking.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 6, 2018.  https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=31911.

[24] Beck, Don. “The Healings of Jim Jones.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 7, 2018.https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=32369.

[25] The Jonestown Institute. “Q135 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27340.

[26] Q135

[27] The Jonestown Institute. “What are White Nights? How many of them were there?” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 5, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=35371.

[28] The Jonestown Institute. “Q642 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27514.

[29] Q642.

[30] Q642.

[31] Q642.

[32] The Jonestown Institute. “Q245 Transcript.”Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27394.

[33] McGehee III, Fielding. “Q042 Transcript, by Fielding M. McGehee III.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29079.

[34] Q042.

[35] Q042.

[36] Moore, Rebecca. “What is Apostolic Socialism?” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=84234.

[37] Coleman, Kate and Avery, Paul. “The Party’s Over.” New Times. Accessed December 7, 2018. http://colemantruth.net/kate8.pdf. Pdf.

[38] The Jonestown Institute. “Q417 Transcript.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=77964.

[39] Q417.

[40] Q417.

[41] Q417.

[42] Q417.

Originally posted on June 2nd, 2019.

Last modified on June 25th, 2019.
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