Race and the Peoples Temple
Race was an important subject for the Reverend Jim Jones, who created an integrated family, an integrated congregation, and the integrated compound at Jonestown, in a remote part of Guyana in South America. “We saw that 80% or so of the people [who joined the Peoples Temple] were African American,” filmmaker Stanley Nelson notes. “What were these African Americans doing in the middle of the jungle with this white man?”
Jones’ son, Jim Jones, Jr. acknowledges all the suffering his father caused, but struggles to remember positive aspects of his youth in Peoples Temple. “It allowed me, as a black man, to hold my head up high,” he told a reporter in 1993.
A Rainbow Family
Jim Jones grew up as an outsider in Indiana, the only child of a working mother and a much older father, a disabled veteran of the Great War. Jones claimed his dark hair and high cheekbones came from Cherokee blood on his mother’s side. His adopted children were Korean and black, and significantly, his black son shared Jones’ own name.
Peoples Temple member Gary Lambrev remembers, “Jim always pointed out not only that his family, his immediate family, was interracial by adoption but that he personally was a man who was profoundly blended of many different racial and ethnic streams. But then increasingly as the organization became blacker and blacker, he began to talk about himself as a black man, first a man of color, and then a black man.”
African American Preaching and Worship
Jones was motivated to start Peoples Temple in part because he disliked mainstream denominations that served single-race congregations. He found a model for his new church in Father Divine’s Peace Mission on trips to Philadelphia in the late 1950s. Divine, a contemporary of the controversial black separatist leader Marcus Garvey, was a charismatic black preacher whose meetings were theatrical and physical. Worshippers alternately rose up or fell to their knees; one member might be healed; another might faint at the presence of the Holy Spirit. A number of Peoples Temple members noticed a change in Jones’ preaching style after he visited Father Divine. Jones became more flamboyant, and his mix of Pentecostalism and Methodism appealed to the African American community.
Civil Rights Activism
The worship may have been familiar in style, but Peoples Temple’s social and political activism was something new. It appealed to African Americans looking for alternatives to their conservative churches. Many black ministers in the late 1950s and into the 1960s were still preaching patience, asking their congregations to accept inequities and await a better future in heaven, even as forceful young leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were demanding changes in the here and now. In many ways, Jones worked in the vanguard of these societal shifts, providing meals and home care services to the most economically distressed in Indianapolis, without discriminating by race. He and his wife were the first white couple to adopt a black baby in the state in 1961, the year Freedom Riders trying to desegregate interstate buses were brutally attacked in Alabama. Anonymous threats targeted the Jones family, and they received notes stating that people were praying for the death of their black son. By the mid-1960s, it was clear to Jones that Indiana was not yet ready for the changes he advocated. He looked elsewhere for his vision of a multiracial community.
California: The Promised Land?
In 1965, Peoples Temple moved its base to Ukiah, California, a small town in an agricultural area about two hundred miles north of San Francisco. It was a tumultuous time in American history, with more than 200,000 troops fighting in Vietnam and social upheavals at home. The Bay Area was a focus of unrest. Pacifist hippie culture was morphing into political protests that attracted violent reprisals. Californians rioted over local issues like the establishment of People’s Park in Berkeley and global dilemmas like the Vietnam War.
In this environment, Jones allied his group with progressive politicians demanding rights for minorities and the poor. Hundreds of Peoples Temple volunteers could blanket a neighborhood with fliers, stuff a mass mailing, or enthusiastically cheer a campaign rally at a moment’s notice. Peoples Temple ran homes to care for the elderly, half a dozen foster homes for children and a ranch licensed to care for the mentally disabled. Temple social workers helped navigate the bureaucracies of the welfare system or the juvenile justice system for members. Day camps were established so that urban kids could learn to ride a horse or swim in a pond.
By 1968, a terrible year of assassinations and fear, many people who had lent their efforts to the civil rights cause found themselves wondering how to actively live Martin Luther King’s dream. Jim Jones showed them how. Peoples Temple member Glen Hennington: “Robert Kennedy had been killed. Malcolm had been killed. Martin Luther King had been killed. So you’re looking at a period of time of civil rights consciousness when there were those in this country that were tryin’ to stomp [racism] out, and you had somebody here who was not only speakin’ about it, but as far as I could see, it was being demonstrated before my very eyes. That was a testimony within itself.”
A Rainbow Congregation
Peoples Temple welcomed people of every race and ethnicity. The racial integration became self-fulfilling at some point; the congregation itself became the draw. Hue Fortson heard about the group through his mother. “She was excited because she said it was an interracial group. She didn’t talk much about Jones himself, but she was just so excited because she saw this group of people that were all seemingly working together.” The integrated social movement held an appeal for non-blacks as well. Tim Stoen: “When I saw Jim kiss old black ladies on the cheek and their eyes would light up, I would cry, I was so touched.” Deborah Layton and others strove to be more like their non-white friends, wearing their hair in Afros and generally denouncing their privileged status as whites.
For some, an integrated environment was a lifeline. Vernon Gosney was a white man with a black wife. The first church they approached had refused to marry them — in fact, interracial marriage was illegal in some states as late as 1967. Gosney recalled the difficult climate of the time. “We were not accepted. Her family didn’t accept me. My family didn’t accept her, and it was really important to us, to have a place — to be in a place where we were accepted and embraced and celebrated…” Peoples Temple was that place.
Building a Mixed Race Utopia
Jonestown was meant to be a mixed race utopia, too. In a radio interview, Jones pointed out that Guyana was a black majority country. “We have 27,000 acres undertaking abroad in a mixed society, black president, but a beautifully racially-inclusive society.” Consciously or not, the move to Guyana must have echoed Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement in the ears of the older black members.
A Tenuous Legacy
In the end, Jim Jones destroyed his interracial church. The horrible end spared few members, black or white, young or old — and the survivors were either extremely resourceful or lucky. Perhaps the only positive thing left behind is a legacy of racial harmony. Over the years, hundreds of people joined Peoples Temple of their own free will. In hindsight, it is easy to question why individuals would join a group that became a cult and cost them their lives. But Peoples Temple members saw things differently at the time. They joined because they believed in a society where people of all races could live and work together. They joined because they wanted their actions and examples to lead to that society. They joined because, at that time in America, those ambitions left them in a minority. Leaving aside, for a moment, the many ways the organization manipulated and exploited its members, it is clear that the congregants of Peoples Temple genuinely found happiness in fellowship, regardless of race.