In support of Jim Jones: Harvey Milk & the Peoples Temple

I represent divine principle, total equality, a society where people own all things in common, where there’s no rich or poor, where there are no races. Wherever there are people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am. – Jim Jones, founder, Peoples Temple

It is now 32 years after the infamous mass murders-suicides at Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple in Guyana, followed only 9 days later by the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Jones and Milk are connected by more than just this coincidental timing in the shocking ends to their respective stories. They worked closely together, supporting one another when the Peoples Temple was located in San Francisco.

It is difficult for those of us peering through the lens of history to understand the realities of life in 1978. Milk’s connections with the Peoples Temple remain murky, and we may be tempted to assign greater historical meaning to it than it deserves. Was Milk only using the Peoples Temple to supply volunteers, crowds at rallies and other support for his political career? Was he as manipulated and taken in by Jones and his utopian vision as his followers? Or did he, as he is said to have remarked to an aide, recognize the group as “dangerous?” We will probably not know the truth. All we can do is read the documents they left behind, such as Milk’s letter of support for Jones to President Jimmy Carter, and speculate.

I have been fascinated by the Jonestown story since I saw a chilling documentary about it many years ago. It seemed inconceivable to me that such an event could have taken place, and I have struggled to understand it. Jim Jones founded Jonestown in the remote jungle in Guyana, moving his followers there from California, after his group came under investigation by the federal government. There he professed to establish a utopia, where there were no divisions based on class or race, and everything was shared equally. Jones was also extremely paranoid and feared persecution. Peoples Temple members had apparently rehearsed their suicide ritual, in preparation for an undefined “crisis,” for years.

That crisis came when U.S. Representative Leo Ryan flew to Jonestown to investigate reports of abuses. Several Temple members told Ryan they wanted to defect and tried to leave with him. Ryan and the news crew accompanying him were gunned down on the airstrip on Jones’s orders. Immediately afterward, Jones initiated the mass suicide ritual, resulting in the deaths of 914 people, including 276 children, by cyanide poisoning.

When you read about Jones, he comes across as a charismatic leader and a master manipulator. He seemed to excel at telling people what they wanted to hear, at being what they needed him to be. His followers believed that he was a person who could create a new and better world. But this facade seemed to conceal insanity, a madman who needed to completely control his followers. This is a very old story, one that has repeated many times throughout human history. But is it an inevitable story?

In defense of Jim Jones (Letters of Note)
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (PBS)
Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple (San Diego State University Dept. of Religious Studies)
Mass Suicide at Jonestown: 30 Years Later (Time Magazine)