Jonestown Remembered By Those Who Were There
Thirty years ago today, the Rev. Jim Jones led more than 900 of his followers to commit mass suicide at the Peoples Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana. It was a cultlike community cut into the jungles of the tiny South American nation.
Those who died included both the faithful, who drank a fruit drink concoction mixed with cyanide, as well as disillusioned members, who were unable to escape. Nearly 300 of the dead were children.
Former Jonestown member Juanell Smart, journalist Tim Reiterman, and Jones' adopted son — Jim Jones Jr. — recently shared their recollections of the community and its final tragic day with NPR's Tony Cox.
Smart said Jones' charismatic qualities helped persuade her — and hundreds of Americans — to forsake their homes and their families in search of a better life.
"I heard Jim speaking," said Smart, "and [he was] a pretty charismatic person. He said a lot of things that made sense to me." At the time, Smart was a mother of four, living in Los Angeles, who initially had suspicions about Jones and his organization.
In 1975, Jones quietly began to move the Peoples Temple from its northern California base to Guyana on the promise of creating a community free of racial, gender, class and cultural discrimination.
'A Sense of New Beginnings'
"The Peoples Temple members had built a utopia. The infrastructure of Jonestown was 12 miles long, seven miles wide, and there was a sense of new beginnings," said Jim Jones Jr.
An infant in the early 1960s, Jones Jr. — who is black — was adopted by the Rev. Jim Jones — who was white — and his wife at the time, Marceline. Jones Jr. said he grew up believing in his father's teachings right up to that fateful day in November 1978.
"Him having the original rainbow family; his work with teens, his work with ex-cons, and his work with senior citizens — those stories were coming out and people were starting to say, 'Hold it for a second. This organization really did something.'"
The morbid ending for Jim Jones and his followers in Guyana came when U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, who represented San Francisco, led a delegation of officials and estranged family members to the Jonestown compound. They intended to investigate charges that temple members were being held against their will. Delusional and paranoid, Jones fought back with deadly consequences.
Ryan was killed, along with several members of his party and some temple members who were trying to leave with him, as the delegation started to board a plane to fly out of the compound.
Journalist Tim Reiterman — then a reporter for the Associated Press — was also part of Ryan's delegation. Reiterman was shot while standing next to the airplane that was supposed to carry them to safety.
Physical and Emotional Scars
"In terms of physical scars, mine were quite minimal," Reiterman said. "In terms of emotional scars, I think we all, to some degree, have them. However I was fortunate in that I was a journalist, and I spent a number of years trying to understand what drove the final outcome of Peoples Temple. That process was a very cathartic exercise."
Smart lost her mother, uncle and all four of her children. But she had safely fled Jonestown two years before the mass deaths. The turning point, according to Smart, was Jones' duplicity.
"Some of the things he did and some of the things he said in the planning commissions were not what he was saying to the general population," said Smart. "It just was not what I thought it was."
Smart is still haunted by the thought that had she stayed at Jonestown, she might have been able to save her family.
"You play a lot of scenarios in your mind," said Smart. "You wonder, 'What would I have done?' I'm sure I would not have participated in that [suicide]. I think I would have tried to get my children out of there. I think that sometimes I would have gone and kicked over the bucket that the solution was in. Maybe I would have tried to get a gun and maybe even shoot Jim Jones. You think of these things. But it's all kind of fantasizing."
Jones Jr., then 18, was not at Jonestown that day. Instead, he and his brothers, Stephan and Tim, were playing basketball in Georgetown, Guyana's capital city. His pregnant wife died with the others.
'Proud To Be Jim Jones Jr.'
But Jones Jr. said he's nonetheless proud of his background and his name.
"Jim Jones and Marceline raised me. They gave me my second chance. I'm proud that I was the first African-American child adopted in the state of Indiana by Caucasian parents. I'm very proud to be Jim Jones Jr. I recognize [my father] let a lot of people down. He destroyed his own life and more importantly his own dream. But that dream still lives on — the dream to have a world with no 'isms' — without sexism, racism, and ageism. I still think that can happen."
But Reiterman sees a different side of Jonestown's place in history.
"I think most people in the general public continue to believe that 900 people willingly committed suicide," he said, "whereas in fact it was mass murder manipulated by the Rev. Jim Jones."
NPR's Devin Robins produced this report.
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