November 18, 1978, the world watched in horror as helicopters flew over a makeshift community in the middle of the Guyana jungle. A sinister quilt of various colors lay quietly in the sun. The colors belonged to the victims of The Peoples Temple. The bodies of 909 People’s Temple members decomposed quickly and sadly in the South American sun. Out of the 909 seemingly apparent suicide victims, 234 were children. At the air strip in Port Kaituma, five people lay dead: Rep. Leo Ryan, NBC correspondent Don Harris, NBC sound man Bob Brown, newspaper photographer Greg Robinson and Temple defector Patty Harris. At the Temple House in Lamaha Gardens, Georgetown, People’s Temple member Sharon Amos, kills her three children then herself. In all, 918 human beings perished on November 18, 1978.
These events have come to be known as the Jonestown Massacre.
But why is it that the African American community then and now, refuse to stand still and acknowledge the gravity of what took place that fateful day? Why aren’t African American ministers of the cloth, churches and communities not setting this day aside to remember the tragedy that was the People’s Temple?
The People’s Temple and its’ founder, Rev. Jim Jones, was a predominately African American church. Jonestown itself was 70% African American. The People’s Temple was financially dependent on the Social Security checks that African American seniors provided. Out of the 200 Social Security checks that The People’s Temple received each month, 182 came from African Americans. This religious institution was funded totally by African Americans. Even though African Americans were the lifeline and the work force of Jonestown, they did not make up the administrative hierarchy. Caucasian People’s Temple members made up this elite group. But they, too died on November 18, 1978.
Is it the humiliation or wonder that African Americans of the cloth or the community itself feels that allows us to be silent on this day? More than likely it is the hypocrisy that African American churches exhibit today. If you take a look at some of the biggest African American churches in America today, you will find thousands of African American parishioners giving millions of dollars to their religious institution of choice. These parishioners contribute to the extravagant lifestyles of their leaders. They blindly follow religious leaders that talk the talk but seldom walk the walk.
These religious leaders lead their flock to the poor house while preaching to them about the riches of the Kingdom of Heavens. There are even some churches that make their parishioners pay big money to sit on the main level of the church. For a certain sum, you can have a name plaque on your seat. Some African American churches keep a public record on display of everyone that has or hasn’t tithe. For humiliation purposes, I am sure. On a certain level, these African American churches are doing the exact same thing that Jim Jones did to his followers: robbing them blind in the name of the Lord.
No one really wants to discuss the Jonestown Massacre in the African American community. The ball was dropped thirty years ago by African American so-called leaders and the African American church community. Who called out the U.S government for the blatant mishandling of the victims bodies being transported from South America? The U.S wanted to leave the Jonestown victims in a unmarked jungle grave in Guyana. The U.S also left the victims unattended to on the jungle floor for days until they could decide what to do with them. Only seven autopsies were performed. Two were shotgun victims. This included Jim Jones.
But what about the others? And why were these victims classified as suicide victims and not homicide victims? If this senseless tragedy was labeled what it was, perhaps the victims of Jonestown could have been treated with more humanity instead of becoming a public embarrassment? Could it be that since the majority of the Jonestown victims were African American, the U.S government and its’ officials decided that they were non-entities? Jim Jones was a serial killer. He killed 917 people on November 18, 1978. He is the most notorious serial killer in U.S history! It is simply amazing that African American leaders, politicians, activists and entertainers did not step up to be a voice of their African American brethren. Where was Jesse Jackson then?
African Americans who were poor and without hope flocked to the con of Jim Jones. They were set up for financial profit and ultimate control. Jim Jones took fear and roped it around his parishioners necks tightly. He turned his church into a circus of entertainment and buffoonery! We African Americans fell for it and then Jim Jones led us to the edge of insanity. Why wasn’t there a public outcry by the African American community, especially when Jim Jones started to load African Americans on a plane headed to Guyana? Jim Jones herded African Americans onto planes like Hitler loaded Jews unto trains bound for extermination camps.
The silence is deafening. An entire African American community wiped out without an investigation. There is absolutely no way that every member of the People’s Temple happily drank cyanide laced Kool-Aid humming a happy tune! These people were forced! They were murdered! If one can argue that it was suicide, I’ll give them the adult population of Jonestown. The 234 children? No. These children were murdered. Who are going to speak for the children?
What do we learn from the destruction of an entire African American community? First of all, we learn that African Americans are expendable and do not matter in the scheme of things. Second, self-proclaimed African American leaders and activists aren’t worth the soap box they preach on. Third, African Americans will stubbornly allow themselves to be led into a no-win situation to the death. Perhaps it is this shame that keeps African Americans silent on this day. The shame that deep inside of each and every last one of us, there is a part of us that want to belong to a collective so bad that we are willing to suffer for it.
However, the African American community of Jonestown proved beyond a shadow of the doubt that our basic human need to be accepted and loved can be deeply exploited and used against us.
I remember that week in November. I was 11. What I saw on the news that week was shocking and terrifying. I haven’t forgotten that picture. I haven’t forgotten the children who were my peers. I have not forgotten that the life that I live, they do not.
I remember Jonestown. Do you?