Memories of the Jonestown tragedy preserved

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Forty-four years ago this week, hundreds of Reverend Jim Jones supporters committed suicide or were murdered in Jonestown, Guyana, the community they had carved out of the jungles of South America.

The Jonestown Institute, a non-profit group, works to ensure memories are never erased.

The organization documents the history of the People’s Temple and its followers, preserving their writings, recordings, photographs, and other artifacts as well as voluminous government documents relating to the organization and the Guyanese colony.

Much of the information is posted on their website: jonestown.sdsu.edu.

There are photos, family trees and updates.

It also contains recordings of sermons by Jones, who was a Methodist, then a Pentecostal, then an ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ at the start of his ministry.

Eventually he shifted his message from Christianity to himself and his own beliefs, including his vision of a new society free from oppression and injustice.

By the late 1970s, hundreds of Americans had flocked to South America’s only English-speaking nation, drawn to Jones’ vision. Some were quickly disillusioned. Others were excited to create what they hoped would be a utopia free of racism, ageism and wealth inequality.

The collective suicide took place on November 18, 1978.

FEW TRACES, EVEN INCREDIBLE

Decades later, the jungle has taken over Jonestown. Little, if any, remains of the community and its vision of what Jones had called “apostolic socialism”.

“The purpose of our site is to humanize those who have died and also to honor and respect those who have survived,” said Fielding McGehee, co-director of the Institute.

Rebecca Moore, professor emeritus of religious studies at San Diego State University and wife of McGehee, is the other co-director.

Her sisters, Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, were among the dead.

Due to its remote location, it took some time for people in the United States to learn about the Jonestown tragedy.

Early reports documented the deaths of strangers: US Congressman Leo Ryan, a California Democrat who had traveled to Guyana to check on the welfare of Peoples Temple members, was killed first, on a trail landing at Port Kaituma, after visiting Jonestown.

The attack, which also claimed the lives of a Peoples Temple defector and three reporters, was caught on camera by one of them, NBC cameraman Bob Brown.

In the days that followed, the scale of the horror became apparent: more than 900 Jonestown settlers were dead, most committing suicide by drinking Flavor Aid laced with cyanide.

A third were children or adolescents under the age of 18. Most of the others were elderly.

The bodies were returned to the United States. After resistance at other potential burial sites, Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California agreed to provide a final resting place for more than 400 of them.

In the aftermath, McGehee and his wife heard the survivors’ stories firsthand.

“In the first 10 years we talked to people [who] said, “You know, I really loved it there,” McGehee recalled. “A woman, a good friend of ours who just died a few years ago, she said it was heaven on earth for her.”

ALL LOST AND EVERYONE

Other survivors lost everything and everyone who mattered to them.

Of those who perished, 374 were born in California, where Peoples Temple was based, and 61 were from Indiana, Jones’ home state, according to the institute.

Most of the other adults were born in the south before heading west. Among the dead were 122 Texas natives; 54 Louisianans, 49 Mississippians and 41 Arkansans.

Eugene E. Smith, who lived in Arkansas for part of his childhood, lost his mother, Mattie Gibson, from Hempstead County; his wife, Ollie Smith; and his infant son, Martin Luther Smith.

Her book, “Back to the World: A Life After Jonestown,” was published last year and details her family’s journey from Detroit and rural Arkansas to California and, eventually, Guyana.

“She left Arkansas – Blevins, more specifically – to have a better life,” he said.

Peoples Temple treated elders as “repositories of knowledge” and demanded that they be respected, Smith said.

This appealed to Gibson, who was 72 at the time of his death.

Peoples Temple also provided its members with a sense of community and a support structure they could rely on, he noted.

“You were part of something,” he said. “You weren’t going to be homeless. You weren’t going to be hungry. You weren’t going to be naked.”

The safety net has extended to other areas as well, McGehee said.

”EVERYTHING IS RECTIFIED”

“If you needed medical assistance, if you needed to go to the doctor and you didn’t have transportation, Peoples Temple would provide it for you. If your grandson had been arrested and was standing before a judge in the night court, there was a lawyer from Peoples Temple standing next to this young man. If you had any issues with your welfare, or your benefits or whatever…he was a member of Peoples Temple, who came down to the office with you to make sure everything was straightened out,” he said.

Gibson had a deep interest in religion and attended Seventh-day Adventist services for a time.

“She was always looking,” Smith said. “We were non-denominational. We were Catholic, we were Baptist, we had Jehovah’s Witnesses. And there were more.”

Eventually she settled on Peoples Temple, eventually immigrating to Guyana.

“She wanted peace, whatever it was,” Smith said. “I’m not sure she ever found it.”

Today his name is engraved on a memorial in Evergreen Cemetery, along with the names of over 900 others.

The Reverend Jim Jones, founder of Peoples Temple, advocated “apostolic socialism” and, eventually, “revolutionary suicide.” After founding Jonestown, Guyana, he convinced hundreds of his followers to commit suicide. (AP/California Historical Society)
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