In the Hands of Jim Jones:
Jonestown and Culpability

by Michael Sutherland

(Michael Sutherland is a Political Science student at the Macaulay Honors College at Lehman College in New York. He is primarily interested in policy implementation and analysis but has a personal interest in cults. He wrote this paper in the fall of 2019 for the class on Fundamentals of Human Rights and Peace Studies, which focuses on the history and theories of human rights, examples of infringements of human rights around the globe, and transitional justice and conflict resolution. He may be reached at michael.sutherland@lc.cuny.edu.) 

Introduction

The events at Jonestown, a commune of transplanted Americans led by Reverend Jim Jones located in northwestern Guyana, rang through the national consciousness in November of 1978. The Concerned Relatives, a group of family members of Jonestown residents, had been raising awareness about alleged human rights abuses—threats of suicide or murder, physical intimidation and psychological coercion, and prohibiting the freedom of movement of those within Jonestown.[1] This prompted Congressman Leo Ryan, reporters, and representatives of Guyanese officials to head to Jonestown to investigate these abuses. After spending a day at Jonestown, Rep. Ryan, his delegation, and a small number of Jonestown defectors arrived at Port Kaituma airstrip to fly back to the United States; the delegation was ambushed. Members of Jonestown rained down gunfire, killing five, including Rep. Ryan, and injuring eleven. What followed was what would be remembered for decades to come—Jones commanded his congregation to commit suicide en masse. Almost the entire commune—more than 900 individuals, including men, women, and small children—killed themselves with a Flavor Aid laced with cyanide.[2]

Many, including myself, consider these “suicides” to be murders—the members were surrounded by armed guards and were told if they tried to escape, they’d be shot. Children no older than two were fed this poison by their parents, and adults could be heard crying out in pain and remorse once it was ingested. These murders were the last act in a pattern of maltreatment and emotional abuse at the hands of Jones. Despite the action of the United States and relative inaction of Guyana, Jim Jones is the only one who can truly be held responsible for what happened on November 18th, 1978.

Jim Jones And His Temple

In the words of NBC anchor Edwin Newman, “to understand how what happened at Jonestown could happen, you have to try to understand Jim Jones.”[3] James Warren Jones was born in Indiana in 1931. From a young age, Jones was interested in religion and was sympathetic to the plight that Black Americans faced in the United States—an uncommon feeling in Indiana at the time. When Jones approached his 20s, he began to affiliate with Communist Party USA. Jones recorded himself and his thoughts constantly, and in one of these tapes, he said “…how can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.”[4] In truth, Peoples Temple was never a particularly spiritual venture to Jones, but rather a way to display and carry out his Communist beliefs. It was in Indianapolis where Peoples Temple got its start, and its focus was on racial integration.

Ironically enough, Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell appointed Jones as director of the city’s Human Rights Commission in 1960.[5] Jones continued his integrationist work in Indianapolis until he took a trip to Brazil in an effort to find a new location for Peoples Temple. This search, Jones told his congregation, was because he foresaw a nuclear holocaust, and needed a safer location for them and himself. He stayed in Brazil for about a year before returning to Indianapolis and moving his flock to California.[6] In California, Jones opened branches of Peoples Temple in San Fernando, Los Angeles, and most importantly, San Francisco. It was in this city where Jones spent most of his energy, schmoozing with politicians like San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who appointed him head of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who spoke at the grand opening of the San Francisco branch of Peoples Temple.[7]

Eventually, paranoia that he was being targeted by his detractors got the best of Jones, and he decided the Temple needed to relocate once again. His criteria for a new home base for his congregation was: a country that was socialist, had a large Black population, would be cheap to relocate to, and was English speaking (at least in part). During his stint in Brazil, Jones visited Guyana, and although it was far from his first choice, he decided to relocate there—the home of the structured abuse, maltreatment, and death that followed.[8]

This may seem to be a superfluous history, but it’s not. Jim Jones is inseparable from Peoples Temple because he was Peoples Temple. Jones used religion for his own vision of what the world ought to look like. Before the events of Jonestown, former member Grace Stoen was asked if the Temple would survive without Jones. She responded, “The church is dead without Jim Jones.”[9]

Jim Jones And Forbes Burnham

As was previously discussed, Guyana was not Jones’ first choice for Peoples Temple. Brazil had too stiff of a language barrier, Cuba would have been too difficult to move to, and Belize’s government wasn’t leftist enough for him. Serious conversations happened with the government of Grenada; Jones was prepared to lay down money for a piece of land on the island, but was outbid.[10] Jones had to settle with Guyana as a location, but why did Guyana want to house Jones and Peoples Temple?

The reason is relatively simple: Jones lied. The prime minister of Guyana, Forbes Burnham, was attempting to go through a period of development. The northwest of Guyana was sparsely inhabited, and Jones offered the opportunity to change that. Jones told Burnham that his congregation would build agrarian infrastructure that would sustain the colony, and produce a surplus that they could trade with locals. He also promised to import medical supplies that could be used not only for Jonestown, but for locals too. Jones and his congregation were given 3,852 acres of land, and began preparing the land immediately.[11]

As time passed, it became apparent that Jonestown couldn’t make enough food to support itself, and it scarcely shared medical supplies with locals. Jonestown was granted permission to skirt a number of laws of Guyana; the doctors and educators of the commune didn’t have to go through the stringent requirements the state mandated, for one.[12] One of the ways that Jones manipulated both the inhabitants of Jonestown and Burnham’s administration was a threat of a “White Night”—what Jones called the mass suicide of Jonestown. This was enough to keep those in Jonestown in line, and their host government powerless. Even still, Jones met with Burnham and Guyanese officials regularly, and the relationship between the President and most of his cabinet and Jones was relatively warm.

Still, it remains that Guyana was relatively unwilling to oppose or question Jones. Jonestown was granted special permission and continued friendly relations with the Burnham administration. Jonestown was even a secretive project within Guyana; the people of Guyana had no idea Jonestown was even established. Resources that could have been given to them were given to a commune of transplants that were a burden on the government. However, it’s still hard to blame Guyana and Burnham. After investing in Jones, Guyana was forced to tacitly accept the fact he was somewhat of a burden, and even then, the promise of something was better than nothing.

American Hands Tied

Jones was relatively respected in the United States during his time in both Indianapolis and San Francisco. His positions in executive boards (the Human Rights Commission in Indianapolis and the Housing Board in San Francisco) displayed the local government’s trust in him, and maybe more importantly, Jones’ unmatched manipulation skills. His detractors were the source of Jones’ desire to move, which is possibly credited more to Jones’ paranoia rather than a real threat.

While Peoples Temple was in operation, the State Department received thousands of letters about the Temple—but 70% of them were positive.[13] There was an official investigation conducted by the State Department where 70 residents of Jonestown were interviewed, but none of them corroborated the claims of human rights abuses, nor did they accept rescue by the State Department.[14] This investigation, deemed insufficient by some, along with urging from the Concerned Relatives (which a close friend of Rep. Ryan was a member of), prompted Rep. Ryan to investigate the claims firsthand.

After Rep. Ryan’s assassination, the situation had come to a close—almost everyone in Jonestown was dead along with a sizable portion of the delegation sent on behalf of the United States, and all that was left was the aftermath. After the events at a State Department press conference, John Bushnell, a State Department official, said: “We had heard reports of a suicide pact…on the other hand, I’m not sure what the proper action of US Officials are [sic].”[15] Bushnell had a point: what was the government to do? After Peoples Temple had left the United States, for lack of a better term—Peoples Temple was Guyana’s problem. There was little more the United States could do.

Conclusion

Blame is a comfort for those who have been wronged. It may be unsatisfying, especially for those who have been personally harmed by him, but Jim Jones is the most culpable in the saga of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. He was the one who manipulated, mentally and physically abused, and murdered almost a thousand people. Guyana was unwilling to intervene (or unaware of the abuses on the land), and The United States was unable to until it was too late. Human rights as a codified practice were still in their infancy, and even if they were at the stage they are today, the situation would likely remain largely the same. But, the awareness of the events of Jonestown, and the danger of cults has become widely known. Much of the information in this paper was gathered from The Jonestown Institute, an effort sponsored by San Diego State University, and it is the largest repository of primary sources and dialogue on the subject of Jonestown.

Despite the fact that Peoples Temple was never about spirituality, there is a line of scripture that may have served as a word of warning: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

Notes

[1] Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones Against Our Children and Relatives at the Peoples Temple Jungle Encampment in Guyana, South America.” https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=13081 (accessed December 11th, 2019).

[2] Kopsa, Andy. “The U.S. Military Had to Clean Up After the Jonestown Massacre 40 Years Ago. What the Crew Found Was ‘Beyond Imagination.’” time.com. https://time.com/longform/jonestown-aftermath/ (accessed December 11th, 2019).

[3] Barron, Art. “Jonestown November 1978.” YouTube video, 28:48. April 8, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNOzHnUwTCM.

[4] Jones, Jim. “Q134 Transcript.” jonestown.sdsu.edu. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27339 (accessed December 11th, 2019).

[5] Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton, 1982.

[6] Reiterman and Jacobs.

[7] Reiterman and Jacobs.

[8] McGehee III, Fielding. “Jim Jones and the Guyana Government: A Symbiotic Relationship.”https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=70275 (accessed December 11th, 2019).

[9] Barron.

[10] McGehee.

[11] McGehee.

[12] McGehee.

[13] Barron.

[14] McGehee.

[15] McGehee.

Originally posted on December 20th, 2019.

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