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HARPER: Horror of Jonestown tainted Thanksgiving 35 years ago
On a day when many Americans thank God for their blessings, I often recall how I spent Thanksgiving after Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple, perverted the word of God, leaving more than 900 people dead.
As a reporter for Newsweek, I was one of only a few journalists who walked through the rows of bodies in Jonestown, Guyana. I spent Thanksgiving Day trying to write about what I had seen. (See bit.ly/XijDlT). It wasn’t easy.
Flying into Jonestown in a Cessna aircraft still stained with a victim’s blood, I saw a ragged carpet of many colors. I slowly realized, from the different clothing each of the dead had worn — spread across several acres of the compound — that corpses of men, women and children were strewn about, often elbow to elbow, in family groups. The sight simply overwhelmed me.
I found Jones‘ thronelike chair from which he spoke to his followers, above it was Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s warning: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I saw Jones‘ body nearby, with a gunshot wound to the head. It remains unclear whether he shot himself or was killed by someone else.
As a tribute to those who died 35 years ago, I would like to repeat what I wrote back then. Unfortunately, little of what I reported remains in our collective memory. Some pertinent facts: Jonestown was not a mass suicide; Kool-Aid was not used.
Point No. 1: In a time of growing Christian evangelicalism, Jones provided a ministry of religious socialism. He drew widespread support from politicians — mostly liberals and leftists from then-Mayor George Moscone of San Francisco to radical Angela Davis. He met privately with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale and appeared at a San Francisco fundraiser with first lady Rosalynn Carter. Jones was appointed chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.
Point No. 2: With few exceptions, the media missed his story. Only the San Francisco Examiner and a magazine, owned by conservative Rupert Murdoch, paid much attention to the claims of abuse, brainwashing, kidnapping and tax fraud the Peoples Temple had engaged in. Under Gov. Jerry Brown, the California government paid little attention. The State Department was uninterested. U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, California Democrat, decided to investigate a growing number of complaints and paid for what he found out with his life.
Point No. 3: Jonestown was mass murder. Residents had participated on numerous occasions in the so-called “White Nights” in which Jones ranted about revolutionary suicide without incident. It was only when people started to have deadly convulsions on Nov. 18, 1978, that others realized something was wrong. Jones‘ security forces, armed with weapons, surrounded a central pavilion and forced many people to drink the poison.
Point No. 4: The concoction did not include Kool-Aid. The drink contained purple Flavor Aid, another brand, and potassium cyanide.
This error has bothered me tremendously. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” has been used for years to describe individuals who have followed an idea without any questions. I have heard the error repeated constantly by people from Rush Limbaugh to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times.
Many of those who died at Jonestown did not blindly follow Jones to their deaths. It upsets me that people don’t know that.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @charper51
About the Author
Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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