African Americans, Have You Forgotten The Tragic Legacy Of Jonestown?

Victims of the People's Temple

Victims of Jonestown

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?

Lover, Fighter, Friend, Journalist, and Activist.

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10 comments on “African Americans, Have You Forgotten The Tragic Legacy Of Jonestown?
  1. […] writer is asking the same question that has been on my mind for […]

    • Joan Helle-Fasolo says:

      The members of the People’s Temple did not see color. That was the beauty of what this church had to offer. It seemed to start as a loving, equally valued church that brought brothers and sisters of all colors and races together. It must have seemed a paradise; a safe haven with eyes only for the soul of the being. Jones may have been a preacher in the beginning but he turned into a drug using power player who thought he was above all. As far as the exploitation of social security checks, pension checks, all earthly belonging…this is the way of all cults and is not unique to this one. The majority of members were African Americans. This should not be too surprising; who was discriminated against? Who would seek out a community of loving, color blind members? It would be where I might go. If the slain members were here to speak to us, do you think they would want this remembered as an African-American tragedy? I do not. I think they would want this remembered as a human tragedy; a colorless, nameless, sexless, ageless tragedy. I know that is what my cousin would want.

      • Tracey Ricks Foster says:

        Dear Joan…Thank you for your comment. The reason I wrote this article is because within the African-American community, no one acknowledges or speaks of the Jonestown tragedy. It is as if it never happened. And this is just the way African Americans are when it comes to religious leaders. Like this new mess with Bishop Eddie Long. African-Americans blindly follow behind charismatic religious leaders to the bitter end. No matter the outcome. Thank you so much for commenting and I in no way meant any disrespect to you or your loved one. Instead I hope that by posting these series of articles I have kept the victims of Jonestown memory alive.

  2. Marcia says:

    It was a strong article, thank you so much for sharing. I did not know that there was a overwhelming number of African Americans. Its sad to see that they hoped for salvation but was tricked into mind slavery. This is a reminder of what happened in Liberia, where african americans left to live in, in the hopes of freedom but where confronted with death and oppression, the very thing they tried to escape.

  3. tim says:

    that artical was very touching in a strong manner is unfortunate that others dont know or never heard of the jones town massacer I am lucky to have a teacher who tells my piers and I of these horrorific tragities Eventhough it intergrated races it still ended in an unpridictable

    • i had never heard of this massacre until today when i watched a documentary of it on History 2. i didn’t graduate high school…but i highly doubt any history teachers in public schools would discuss this. i am at a loss for words…i just can’t believe something like this happened. i posted on my facebook and stated that i have no pity for the followers who were blind to Jones’ psychotic tactics. i wept for the innocent lives of the children taken that day. they were forced to take the poisoned koolaid from baby medicine syringes. i also wept for those who attempted to leave and get the story out to the public. unfortunately we do not live in a color-blind world…and most of the division that still remains today comes from the african-american population, and it’s sad that they can’t let go of a grudge they’ve held against the white population for all these years. even though it was a white man who set them free when he abolished slavery…and i must say, i know EXACTLY what the author of this article is saying when it comes to african-american people of the religeous cloth and their leaders…the leaders are money hungry and power driven and they convince their followers it is the will of God for them to support their church, but the leaders lavish themselves with royalty-like conduct. i was a member of a church called Restoration Houston Ministries. it is a drug rehabilitation center that is supposed to be Christian Faith based, but i soon learned that all they cared about was the amount of money we brought in everyday, after standing out in the hot summer sun in 2011. we had a quota to meet, $70 on weekdays, and $90 on fridays and saturdays…if we didn’t meet that quota, we were made to feel guilty, were often accused of stealing the funds, and many times i heard about ppl being strip searched in gas station bathrooms after being accused. we would often get into trouble with the law cuz it is illegal to pan-handle in the state of texas and many other states…but they didn’t care about that, each day we were sent out to fund raise. there were close to 150 members, possibly as much as 200 members when i was there…do the math on what we would bring in financially. but yet we hardly got to eat breakfast before hitting the pavement, and at night, we would be fed, hot dogs, balongna, and other very cheap meals. we only got sundays off and those were the only days we were fed good food. but the pastor and his wife of the church would always dress lavishly. the pastor every sunday preached on stage in a brand new “pimp suit” as i called them, cuz that’s what they looked like. matching pants, jacket, shirt, right down to his shoes. we’re not talking cheap. and i never saw him wear the same one twice. i can just imagine what his closet looked like. i also witnessed him wearing $300 sports jersies, and $250 nike sneakers on a constant basis. i only endured 4 months of this 9-month program. i grew tired of getting into trouble with the law, and the next day being forced back out there. i now have an outstanding warrant for my arrest and on my record it says “standing in roadway, soliciting myself/money/ride”…kinda makes me sound like a prostitute, don’t it? i went there to get help and ended up looking like that on record. such irony sickens me. and the congregation was dominantly african american. the pastor and his wife were as well. i’m white, however, and i was not blind to their tricks and tactics. I thank God everyday for sending me there, cuz it opened my eyes to much more than just my own self preservation and health. He opened my eyes to the gifts He gave me, and i could see the corruption present in many of His churches today….someone does need to stand up and speak for the victims of this corruption, and needs to speak up about the way God says it should be. unfortunately, too few members of Jonestown wanted to stand up and speak up about the corruption and power abuse. i apologize for going on and on, but i felt i needed to get my story out there as well, and i in no way am trying to attain any kind of recognition for my story, nor am i trying to override the tragedy of the jonestown massacre with my own experience. i only wish ppl will read all of this and compare and realize just how much corruption rules the Christian Church, and just maybe we can get enough ppl to stand up and make things right before the end of days…thank u for taking the time to read my peace of mind. God bless you all!!

      • Tracey Ricks Foster says:

        OH WOW!!! Thank you for taking the time to comment, Krisstina! When the Jonestown massacre happened, I was eleven years old and seeing the pictures on the news and in the newspapers had a tremendouse affect on me. People have to realize that being part of an organized religion or institution is some serious business. We should never follow blindly behind anyone. Doing ones homework is essential!
        Thank You for reading!
        You can follow me on Facebook at: Tracey Ricks Foster.

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November 2008
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