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Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple | Article

The Peoples Temple in California

Redwood Valley, California, near the town of Ukiah, was one of the locations an article in Esquire magazine had suggested would survive a nuclear war. Indiana minister Jim Jones moved his growing family and his Peoples Temple there in 1965. In California, the Peoples Temple continued to grow and develop into a political and social advocacy group. There were still religious services, but longtime members understood that those were a means to an end: social justice and racial equality.

Jonestown, California.

Biblical Basis for Communism
As a teenager Jones had admired the Soviets’ defense against Nazi Germany in the battle of Stalingrad and was perplexed that American allegiances and enmities switched so quickly after the war. Loyalty was important to Jones. So were the political ideals of communism, the redistribution of wealth within a society for the benefit of the greater good. Jones saw a Biblical foundation for these ideas: “Distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” (Acts 4:35).

Middle Class Progressives
While many Peoples Temple members in Indiana had come from lower income families, the organization’s new incarnation in California attracted middle class progressives of all races. Among the members were blacks who had been active in the civil rights movement and whites who had been involved in the antiwar campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s. All were drawn to Jones’ message of equality and community.

An Active Community
San Francisco’s liberal civic leaders also found this new community attractive. The temple grew quickly and Jones bought an abandoned synagogue in San Francisco to house an urban branch of his church in 1971. Jones donated money to local causes — a fund for police widows, the NAACP, the Ecumenical Peace Institute — and had the organization and manpower to fuel a political operation. Peoples Temple volunteers could blanket a neighborhood with fliers, produce a mass mailing or populate a campaign rally at a moment’s notice. The fact that members of the group were diverse (young and old, black and white), only added to the appeal for politicians.

Political Connections
Member Deborah Layton remembered then California State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown comparing Jones to “Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Chairman Mao.” Peoples Temple helped elect George Moscone in 1975 and in return, the new mayor appointed Jones to the city’s Housing Authority Commission. In a rally for Rosalynn Carter, more than half the crowd consisted of Peoples Temple members.

Friends in the Press
Jones cultivated friends in the media, too. His group gave money to a dozen local newspapers, and Peoples Temple members demonstrated against the imprisonment of four reporters who refused to reveal their sources. When local reporters suggested investigating Jones and the secrecy surrounding many aspects of the Peoples Temple, their editors or publishers would discourage them.

Revolutionary Allies
The Temple attracted allies from outside the establishment as well, such as radical university professor Angela Davis and American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks. The Bay Area was a hotbed of a particularly revolutionary counterculture in the era of the Peoples Temple’s ascent: Huey Newton of Oakland’s Black Panthers published a memoir titled Revolutionary Suicide in 1973, and Berkeley’s Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patricia Hearst in 1974.

The End Justifies the Means
At religious meetings, Jones demonstrated extraordinary powers. He read minds, healed cancers and predicted the future. What many did not know was that loyal Temple members had been dispatched to root through garbage cans and medicine cabinets for private information, or pretend to be blind or disabled to achieve the desired effects. Although these members knew the subterfuge was wrong, they justified their actions to further the socialist egalitarian state that Jones was creating.

Techniques of Control
More troubling were a growing list of abuses. Jones made sexual advances to Temple members, and he also oversaw beatings, “confessions”, and humiliations of Temple members in front of the rest of the group. But members did not feel free to share their feelings about “Father.” In fact they were encouraged to inform on each other — children were rewarded for informing on their parents — and the constant work and all night meetings kept most of them in a state of exhausted confusion. Furthermore, each member cherished the moment when Jones would take them aside and reveal that that member was truly the only one Jones trusted.

In this environment, some of the most trusted inner circle became disillusioned and left the Temple. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff couldn’t get his own paper to print the stories he uncovered by talking to disaffected members, and so along with Phil Tracy, he approached New West magazine. Despite the efforts of Jones and the Temple leadership to block publication, the magazine reported the allegations of the defectors and apostates in its August 1977 issue.

With the glare of the media upon him, Jones and hundreds of his supporters disappeared virtually overnight. Husbands returned home from work to find their wives and children gone, their apartments bare. Entire nursing homes were vacant of patients and staff. Children stopped going to school.

They were on their way to Guyana, where Jones had established a contingency plan for the furtherance of his vision outside of U.S. government control or media oversight. He called it Jonestown.

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