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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Trump: Jonestown Drank the Kool-Aid

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

Peoples Temple literature showcases its utopia at Jonestown, Guyana.


“. . . Do you have any sense that that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave, to a certain extent, as it put me – and I think lots of white, privileged people – in a cave and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain, particularly, black people feel in this country? Do you see?” journalist Bob Woodward asked President Donald Trump in an interview taped after the May killing of George Floyd but released earlier this month.

“No,” Trump said. “You, you really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow! No, I don’t feel that at all.”

Trump used an expression that was, in this instance, ironic.

Does he know who drank the Kool-Aid, a phrase that became a popular term for blind obedience after the Jonestown massacre on November 18, 1978?

“Of the roughly 1,000 Peoples Temple members who moved to Guyana (from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Redwood Valley in Northern California) before its tragic end there, 70 percent were black and almost half were black women,” Jamilah King wrote in Jonestown’s Victims Have a Lesson to Teach Us, So I Listened, in Mother Jones, (November 16, 2018).

A total of 918 people, 304 of them children, died that day. At the behest of their leader, who coaxed them over a loudspeaker, to commit “revolutionary suicide”, most died by drinking the cyanide-laced drink, which was, actually, grape Flavor Aid, a cheaper version of the powdered drink mix. Their bodies were sprawled outside a pavilion for days. Until 9/11, the massacre marked the largest loss of U.S. civilian lives, excluding natural disasters.

The Jonestown massacre is almost a taboo subject in San Francisco. For years, King, a black San Franciscan native, had heard vague stories about aunties and cousins who had gone off to Guyana and disappeared. She wrote:

“I needed to know about the individuals, largely black individuals, who were so seduced by the church’s white leader, and who were, more importantly for me, mostly forgotten – either erased or shamed from history. I wanted this, not because I was afraid of them or even morbidly fascinated but, because on a deep level, I felt I understood them and this, perhaps foolhardy, desire to belong – especially today, almost exactly 40 years later.”

President Trump, heed this, please: it was the desire to belong.

The Reverend Jim Jones had tapped into this unrequited need of the African American, who is a pariah in the United States. The Peoples Temple advocated racial harmony and social justice. The agricultural project in Guyana represented self-sufficiency and safety. Doors could be left unlocked, and alcohol, other drugs, and cigarettes were forbidden. People would take care of each other. Utopia.

“Seeing the children play was one of the most incredible things because you have all these children from different backgrounds, right,” said Leslie Wagner-Wilson, a Jonestown survivor who joined the church when she was 13 and her older sister was "doing drugs". After escaping with her 3-year-old son through the jungle and returning to the United States, she lived incognito for 20 years. Her husband, mother, sister, brother, niece and nephew died in Jonestown. “You have this rainbow of children. And they’re walking, they’re hugging each other, you know. They’ve got their arm around each other like they’re brothers and sisters, and that’s how they looked at each other. It was a beautiful place.”

It is a tragic story. An American tragedy. The hope and excitement of the Jonestown population and, beforehand, of Peoples Temple members in California reflected the brokenness of American society.

“His flock grew to an estimated 20,000,” wrote Marshall Kilduff, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, and Phil Tracy, who wrote Inside Peoples Temple, for New West, (August 1, 1977). “And though Jones is a white fundamentalist minister, his congregation is roughly 80 percent to 90 percent black.”

“Even still, in America, Jonestown is largely seen as a white catastrophe; in Guyana, it’s viewed as a distinctly American one, a late 20th-century experiment in colonialism,” wrote King. “In both tellings, and in the many books and films, black people are seen en masse, without individual stories of their own that might tell us something about how private entities learn to prey on black people when civic institutions fail them, and how joy can sometimes be found within that.”

A white Peoples Temple member, Laura Johnston Kohl, who survived the massacre by being in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, said in 2018:

“People went to Guyana for a lot of different reasons. Some people were following Jim, and Jim was going to create a utopian society. Some people in the American system said, ‘I’m getting out of the United States: there’s too much racism, police brutality. You know, my son’s at risk being on the street. He could be picked up without any legal representation and put in prison.’ Many people left because being black in America, at that time, was a very dangerous skin color. And, so, people left for that.”

Sadly, this has not changed in nearly 42 years.

King wrote:

“I can understand why the church and its drive to build a colorblind utopia appealed specifically to black people in this San Franciscan community. The Fillmore was once called “the Harlem of the West”, a black neighborhood dominated by jazz bars, mom-and-pop shops, and Victorian duplexes in varying degrees of upkeep and decay. Like most black communities, it was a place of government-sanctioned racial segregation, one of only two neighborhoods open to black people, where black doctors didn’t live that far from the poorest of the poor.

“By the 1970s, black families in San Francisco were struggling with drug addiction and neglect; the neighborhood was still reeling from a two-decade-long redevelopment program that demolished hundreds of homes and displaced tens of thousands of residents. It was mostly the poor who were left to live in a smattering of public housing complexes that took up most of the neighborhood.”

“It was an era of opting in, in a neighborhood where there was no shortage of things to opt into. Here was the rock scene at the Fillmore Auditorium, drug-addled hippies in the Haight-Ashbury. The Black Panthers had an office near Divisadero.

“But Peoples Temple, the church my mom’s friend was so into, was bigger and more politically influential than nearly everything else in the city in the mid- to late ‘70s. Beyond that, part of the appeal was that it didn’t make you wait for the afterlife to find salvation. If the gas company was skimping on service but still badgering you about the bill, members would coordinate letter-writing campaigns. If your grandmother couldn’t afford retirement, the church provided free housing and food on a pristine patch of land two hours north.”

Much has been written about Jim Jones, less about his followers.

The Jonestown Institution website, or Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, devotes itself to “personal and scholarly perspectives on a major event in the history of religion in America”. There are remembrances of each of those who died and those who survived the massacre, documentation of government investigations, and personal presentations of members through articles, letters, photographs, tapes and other items. The meticulous website is sponsored by San Diego State’s Special Collections of Library and Information Access.

The website’s architects, Rebecca Moore and Fielding “Mac” McGehee III, neither of whom ever visited Jonestown, have dedicated four decades to the task of humanizing the massacre victims.

Moore and McGehee were living in Washington, D.C. when they read early reports about Jonestown, which said that Representative Leo Ryan of California had been shot and killed while investigating an American church group in a remote part of Guyana. It was still unclear what had happened to Ryan’s staff, journalists and the church members.

Moore worried because her older sister, Carolyn, and younger sister, Annie, were both Peoples Temple members, who had been living in Guyana for two years. Carolyn even had a three-year-old son with Jones. Moore had not seen her sisters since their move, but they often sent her and their parents letters, urging them to join the church.

As the days passed, the death toll climbed, and Moore found out that her sisters added to the number with their own deaths.

“Both women had worked their way into the small, tight-knit, and almost entirely white inner circle that governed Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” wrote King. “Carolyn, who had been a high school English teacher before joining, ran much of Jonestown’s K-12 education curriculum. Annie was trained as a nurse. More than 900 people – many of them children – ingested or were injected with a lethal dose of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid at Jonestown, but there were people who had to buy it, mix it, and distribute it. Those people likely included Annie and Carolyn Moore.”

“The thought of my sisters killing children made me physically sick,” Moore later wrote. “I couldn’t believe they could do such a thing. But if they had? I hoped they were dead as well.”

Moore searched for answers but found only sensational news stories. As survivors, she and McGehee decided to find the answers themselves and, by so doing, honor the dead followers of Jim Jones. Moore earned a doctorate in Religion. She became a professor, writing about medieval Christian ideology, Jewish biblical commentary and the Peoples Temple. In 1985, she published a book, A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in Peoples Temple.

Jones was charismatic and frightening, said survivor Wagner-Wilson.

Born in rural Indiana, Jones grew up in a shack with no plumbing in the Great Depression.

As a 20-year-old, he attended Communist Party meetings in 1951. Frustrated by the attacks on Communists through the McCarthy hearings, he asked himself how he could express his Marxist ideas. His answer was to infiltrate the church. He studied Adolph Hitler and Father Divine, the black charismatic leader of the International Peace Mission movement, to learn how to manipulate people. Divine told Jones to “find an enemy” and “to make sure they know who the enemy is” as it will unify church members and make them subservient to him, according to church member Kohl. Like Divine, he taped himself.

Jones based some of his doctrines on Father Divine’s church. Later, in the 1970s, he also claimed to be the reincarnation of the leader as well as Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi and Lenin.

In 1952, he became a student pastor at a Methodist church but later claimed he left the church because it forbade him to integrate blacks into the congregation, according to Catherine Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate (2000).

He began his own church and opened it to all ethnic groups. In 1960, the Indianapolis mayor appointed him director of the Human Rights Commission. He helped to integrate churches, restaurants, the telephone company, the police department, a theater, an amusement park and a hospital. He kept a high profile on television and radio show. In his personal life, he and his wife had one son, and they adopted what they called “a rainbow family”: a part Native American girl, three Korean American girls, a white boy and, in 1961, they became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child.

In 1962, because of fear of a nuclear holocaust, Jones traveled to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which he believed would be safe. He planned to establish a Peoples Temple there. On his way there, he stopped in Guyana for his first visit. In Brazil, he studied the traditional religion and local economy as well as the receptiveness of racial minorities to his message, although language was a barrier. He portrayed himself as living an apostolic communal lifestyle rather than as a Marxist. Ultimately, the family moved 274 miles south to Rio de Janeiro in mid-1963, where they worked with the poor.

In December 1963, Jones returned from Brazil to Indiana. He told his congregation that they would be engulfed by nuclear war on July 15, 1967, leading to a new socialist Eden on earth. For safety, he said that the Temple had to move to Redwood Valley in Northern California.

The doomful day came and went, not with a bang or a whimper.

In the early 1970s, Jones also incorporated Peoples Temples in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Jones became influential in San Francisco politics. State Assemblyman Willie Brown, who later became mayor, and Cecil Williams, pastor of the socially active Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, knew and respected him. Jones could deliver a crowd; he could deliver votes. He gained contact with politicians on a state and national level: Governor Jerry Brown, Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and Walter Mondale. Peoples Temple played an instrumental role in George Moscone’s San Francisco mayoral victory in 1975. Moscone appointed Jones as chairman of the Housing Authority Commission.

Nevertheless, there were rumblings about the Peoples Temple. Marshall Kilduff, at the San Francisco Chronicle, heard them. He questioned why Jones traveled with as many as 15 bodyguards, and the double doors to the Peoples Temple were locked and guarded.

What was going on behind those doors?

However, Kilduff’s editor had been wooed by Jones, whom he saw as an inroad into the black community. So, Kilduff published his story, based on interviews with more than a dozen former members, in New West magazine in August 1977.

“Life inside the People Temple was a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation. As they told it, the Sunday services to which dignitaries were invited were orchestrated events. Actually, members were expected to attend services two, three, even four nights a week – with some services lasting until daybreak. Those members of the temple’s governing council, called the Planning Commission, were often compelled to stay up all night and submit regularly to ‘catharsis’ – an encounter process in which friends, even mates, would criticize the person who was ‘on the floor’.

“In the last two years, we were told, these often humiliating sessions had begun to include physical beatings with a large wooden paddle and boxing matches, in which the person on the floor was occasionally knocked out by opponents selected by Jones himself.

“Also, during regularly scheduled ‘family meetings’, attended by up to 1,000 of the most devout followers, as many as 100 people were lined up to be paddled for such seemingly minor infractions as not being attentive enough during Jones’s sermons. Church leaders also instructed certain members to write letters incriminating themselves in illegal and immoral acts that never happened.”

How did Jones manage to appeal to so many different kinds of people? “His bi-monthly newspaper, Peoples Forum, regularly exalts socialism, praises Huey Newton and Angela Davis and forecasts a government takeover by American Nazis.”

Kilduff questioned where Jones was getting the money to finance church programs, maintain a fleet of buses and finance the Guyana agricultural project. He wrote:

“Temple members were encouraged to turn over their money and property to the church and live communally in temple buildings; those who didn’t ran the risk of being chastised severely during catharsis sessions.”

In Mother Jones, King wrote: “A number of those (at Jonestown) were black women over the age of 61; the burgeoning community relied in part on the $36,000 per month in Social Security benefits that these women brought in.”

Jones was beginning to feel the squeeze of scrutiny. The IRS was investigating him, and he knew about the New West article, which was to be published in spite of prominent Californians such as Dymally, businessman Cyril Magnin, and John Maher, founder of the drug rehabilitation center, Delancey Street, advocating that it not be published because Jones was a good man doing good work.

“I don’t feel comfortable here anymore,” Jones said, before fleeing to Jonestown.

His presence changed everything, dramatically and quickly, said Thomas Beikman, who tried to escape with another man but was caught and humiliated by members. Jones shouted “You filth. You vile filth. . . . You’re evil . . .” Frighteningly, Beikman’s own mother shouted that they ought to be shot, and she should be allowed to do it.

Before Jones’s arrival, Beikman, 21, had been working eight hours a day. He said that he enjoyed work for the first time in his life. However, when Jones came, the workday increased to 12 hours, and he had to attend meetings that would go on many hours into the night before starting his day at 6 in the morning.

Wagner-Wilson said: “We were working for the better good to make sure that the community had food, but nothing could grow in Jonestown. They had ruined the topsoil. It ended up being rice every day, then rice three times a day. There were more people and less food. And Jim became more paranoid, and the community started changing.”

Jones abused amphetamines and other pills. Wagner-Wilson said: “He would go on these rants (eventually with a loudspeaker and, sometimes, through the night) about how we were under attack and how, basically, it was 'Poor me, poor Father. Because I love you so much, and I’m sacrificing so much for you.' And this was ongoing. So, he was slowly breaking down our spirits.

“Jim Jones did not want to be in Jonestown. There were no accolades. There were no politicians giving him praise. He wasn’t this big guy on the block anymore. He was this man that was stuck in the jungle with us. So, because he was a prisoner, we were prisoners. And, as time went on, he started bringing up revolutionary suicide.”

Jones, who did not allow people to leave Jonestown, broadcast: “When fascist terror brings concentration camps, you have a home. These lovely people are all happy. None of them want to return. They’re delighted with this lovely life.”

However, Wagner-Wilson had a different perspective: “There were more people, less food, and Jim with his ranting and raving. The community became more paranoid. It was living on the edge. You couldn’t trust anyone.”

Wagner-Wilson wanted out. Yet, she knew that she could not confide in anyone, even in her husband, who was part of the security contingent. Difficult as it was for her to accept, she knew that if he caught her trying to run away, he would, without hesitation, kill her.

Back in California, relatives of members urged Representative Leo Ryan to investigate possible infringement of civil rights at Jonestown. Ryan went on a fact-finding mission with a delegation of aides and journalists. At the end of an orchestrated performance, Ryan stood and addressed the church members:

“It’s wonderful to be here,” Ryan said. “You’ve done so much in a year. It’s amazing. I can see how proud you are.”

That was the cue for people to pass notes to Ryan furtively, begging to be taken home. Another plane was ordered for these people.

As members of the delegation boarded two planes at Port Kaituma airstrip, Jones’ armed guards, called the Red Brigade, arrived on a tractor and trailer and began shooting at them, according to Tom Reiterman and John Jacobs in Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People (1982).

Five -- Representative Ryan, NBC television news correspondent Don Harris, NBC soundman Bob Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and Peoples Temple departing member Patty Parks – were shot to death.

Back in Jonestown, Jones was on the loudspeaker, coaxing church members to make true what they already had rehearsed with nontoxic Flavor Aid, a “White Night”, or mass suicide.

“It’s all over. I’m glad it’s all over. Hurry, my children. No more pain now. We’re not letting them take our lives. We’re taking our own lives.”

If Jones tapped into the hopes and needs of black Americans, he also tapped into their fears. Amid wails and screams from members, Jones kept on.

There’s no way out, he told them, according to Peoples Temple member Kohl. You can’t go back. You don’t have any money. Your family won’t have anything to do with you. You conspired with me to kill a congressman. If you go back, you won’t have the money to fight your court battles. Your children will go into the San Francisco foster care system.

At the end of the “Death Tape”, Jones said:

“We didn’t commit suicide; we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

Jones was found dead on the floor with a gunshot wound to his head consistent with suicide, according to the autopsy. The report also showed high levels of the barbiturate pentobarbital, which would have been lethal to someone who had not developed a tolerance.

Jones could not hide his drug addiction from his followers after he moved to Jonestown, according to religious scholar Mary McCormick Maagma in Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (1998). The lethal concoction was an exotic cocktail. Besides cyanide and Flavor Aid, it contained diazepam (also known as Valium, an anti-anxiety medication), promethazine (aka Phenergan, a sedative), and chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called knockout drops), according to Chris Higgins in Stop Saying ‘Drink the Kool-Aid in The Atlantic (November 8, 2012).

Peoples Temple member Kohl said: “People did not want to die. They did not go to Guyana to die. . . . People left for a lot of different reasons. Once they got down there and saw the community, it was workable until Jim’s insanity would not allow civilization to happen.”

Hue Fortson, Jr., former Associate Pastor of Peoples Temple in Los Angeles, lost his wife and three-year-old son at the Jonestown Massacre. He was in San Francisco on Peoples Temple business. Fortson quoted Jones as saying:

“What you need to believe in is what you can see. . . . If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father. . . . If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your god, I’ll be your god.”

Rep. Jackie Speier traveled with Representative Ryan to Jonestown as his aide. She was shot several times and left for dead. She said:

“It always gets my hackles up when people say it was suicide. Those people were murdered.”

So, President Trump, words matter. Please be careful with your choice of words.

This is a time for all of us to listen to each other.

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