In 1972, a religious fanatic named Jim Jones set up shop in an abandoned synagogue in the famed Fillmore District of San Francisco. He called it the People’s Temple and developed a ministry for the urban citizenry of the Western Addition. The Temple was located at Geary and Fillmore which in 1970 was ground zero of the redevelopment A-2 project which displaced more than 10,000 mostly African American men, women and children. This an area of the city that has since been reserved for the affluent.
Left largely abandoned in the 70’s, the area became blighted, crime ridden and drug infested. Yet, the People’s Temple flourished through its after-school programs, free meal and health projects. A charismatic Jim Jones rubbed elbows with political leaders including Governor Brown, national and international journalists, along with the movers and shakers of the San Francisco civil rights movement including Angela Davis.
The number of followers grew from a handful to hundreds in a short period of time. Much like 2010, the people in 1970 were tired of police brutality, high unemployment, drug abuse, and violence. Jim Jones offered them a better life. He recruited his followers from every denomination and every Black church; Catholic, Apostolic, Baptist, Church of God in Christ. Several years later, on a promise of abundance and good, clean, healthy living, over 1,000 of these followers, mostly residents of the Fillmore, set up a commune in Guyana, South America.
People around the world believed for a short time that Jim Jones had set up a real heaven on earth in this township named after himself. That is until the dissatisfied started running away and began to talk about the activities that were really going on. Activities such as fraud, extortion, slave labor, death threats, sexual abuse and, you guessed it, a whole lot of brain washing.
Under the threat that the truth was about to be revealed, on November 18, 1978, Jim Jones ordered everyone of his remaining followers at Jonestown to commit suicide and murder with cyanide-laced red Kool-Aid. Nine hundred mostly black men, women and children lost their lives that day and one can only speculate as to why they did it and how did this man get them to do it.
Nine days later, the 193rd Army Infantry Brigade flew the bodies to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware until the U.S. Government could figure out what to do with them. Of the 912 victims, 409 could not be identified because of the effect of the tropical climate on the remains. Most of the names were deduced from membership records; however, some families were so ashamed that they changed their names and never claimed any association to the massacre.
For six months the Council of Churches worked to have the bodies returned to the Bay area but a cemetery could not be found. Residents of San Mateo and Marin counties complained that they did not want a grisly spiritual tourist attraction in their neighborhood. There are those in the Bay area that believe that this was a racially motivated issue in light of who these people were and the era in which this tragedy occurred.
Finally, in May of 1979, Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery buried the remaining unidentified victims. Out of that number, more than 300 of the bodies in the mass grave that sits far to the back of the plot are the children that Jim Jones ordered to be murdered first. The small gravestone simply states: In Memory of the Victims of the Jonestown Tragedy.
Every year, for thirty-two years, a canopy is erected over the grave spot and a memorial service is held complete with gospel music and prayer.
This year was different. There has been heated conflict over the memorial wall that was unveiled two years ago. Allegations of misappropriation of funds for the effort and what exactly is going to go on the memorial wall has the survivors and relatives deeply divided.
The animosity between the two groups has gotten so bad that there are now two separate memorial services on the same day at the same place.
The first is led by the Rev. Jynona Norwood, a Los Angeles pastor who lost 27 relatives in the massacre. She’s overseen the construction of a memorial wall, part of which was unveiled at the cemetery during the service’s 30th Anniversary. Norwood is adamant that the name of Jim Jones should not be on the memorial in any form. She says that to do so would be an insult to all those that have died.
The other faction is headed by Lela Howard, who lost an aunt at Jonestown. She and her group of survivors/relatives (which includes Jim Jones, Jr.) have railed against Norwood, demanding that Jones be memorialized. There’s been accusations of financial improprieties in the $100,000 wall project which has left Norwood outraged. Some say that the cemetery is still waiting to get paid.
This group announced this year that they are moving ahead with their memorial of four placards embedded in the ground that would bear the names of the victims
This whole affair is a far cry from the Jonestown tragedy but it is turning out to be tragic none-the-less. There are 300 or so innocent children in that mass grave and they are unidentified. They were 300 or so young people that had the potential to be the best doctors, lawyers and statesmen. Let us hope that they will not be remembered only as part of one of the worst moments in American history.
There is still police brutality, high unemployment, drug abuse and gang violence and people are still tired. Their call from the grave is a reminder that this can indeed happen again.