Jones used white liberalism and performative allyship to target mostly poor Black folks, seduce them into his abusive cult, take their money, and orchestrate the death of over 900 people.
This essay contains discussions of suicide, murder, and spiritual abuse
“Black people were integral to Jim Jones’ ambitions. Without black followers, and black causes to encourage and support, Jones might have ended up pastoring a tiny Methodist congregation in backwater Indiana, largely frustrated and entirely unknown” (273)
Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the massacre at Jonestown. Jim Jones is a name that many people know or have at least heard of. It’s a name that invokes fear and awe. “Mass suicide” is the story that most of know about Jonestown, but much of that is a fiction or an incomplete truth. Those who refused to drink the concoction of grape Flavor Aid laced with cyanide were held down and injected with the poison or executed by the armed guards. This is how up to a third of Jonestown, nearly 300 people, met their end on November 18, 1978, murdered on Jim Jones’ command.
When we remember Jonestown, we cannot only examine that gruesome ending. We have to look at what led up to it and the insidious methods used by Jones to manipulate his followers. Jones used white liberalism and performative allyship to target mostly poor Black folks, seduce them into his abusive cult, take their money, and orchestrate the death of over 900 people.
Peoples Temple began as a community of citizens who believed in racial equality and social justice, but unbeknownst to them, they were being led by a man whose only motivation was power and control. What Jones wanted more than anything else was immortality. He wanted his name to be eternal and he wanted to achieve this immortality through having total sway and dominance over others, a man who “seemed to believe that once he did anything for someone, from that moment forward the person belonged to him, with no right to disagree about anything or ever leave” (60).
In the low-income, inner city Black communities of Indianapolis, Jones saw real injustice, but he also saw people he could easily manipulate and take advantage of. He saw an easy, unobstructed path to power and having people indebted to him, belonging to him, and he used his position as a spiritual leader to lure them into his web.
“Trapped in poverty, confined to vermin-ridden slums where their children were educated in crumbling, underequipped schools, African Americans in the city most often found church to be their only source of solace. It was a relief to spend long hours there, listening to sermons reminding them of God’s love and His promise of heaven, eternal land in a milk-and-honey Promised Land. Commiseration now and better times after death were the message of the city’s black churches. Their ministers did little to help their members overcome the immediate challenges of Indianapolis and its apparent unassailable racism. It took a white preacher to show them how” (67).
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Jones established a church where you “get something now,” using his place of privilege to help Black people navigate situations where anti-Black discrimination kept them from obtaining basic necessities. He encouraged the Black members he helped to tell the congregation and other Black families about what he had done for them, about how he helped them to get something now, and how he could do more for them than Black churches and Black ministers could. Poor Black people were better off following him, praising him, being indebted to him, belonging to him.
This is how he persuaded and enlisted others to persuade even more poor Black people to come to him. He eventually was able to take advantage of the deeply-ingrained racism in the area and purchased a storefront church space in a low-income Black neighborhood. It was “White flight” that made this cunning move so fortuitous, when “middle-class America’s 1950s abandonment of the inner cities for suburbs to escape growing numbers of minorities, affected faith-based organizations as it did families and businesses. Several major sects pulled out of downtown Indianapolis” and Jones quickly identified how this could work in his favor (79). Drawing Black people to his church would be much easier now.
Throughout the years, Jones faked miracles at tent revivals. He claimed to be able to heal people, rid them of cancer, read their minds, and ease their sufferings. “He preached like a black man and got things done like a white one,” they said of him (92). Jones even took on a peculiar affectation in his later, drug-addled years in which he purposely tried to imitate the speech of older Black women. He would also go on to claim that the spirit of Father Devine, a recently deceased Black preacher and cult leader whom Jones had been emulating for years, had come into his white body in a bid to acquire the largely poor Black congregation Father Devine had left behind.
Performing as a liberal ally to Black people was something that Jones had done ever since he realized that he could use such an identity to gain notoriety and the admiration of other white liberals. He had wooed his wife, Marceline, in part by bragging about how he once quit a basketball team and walked out of a barbershop with his hair half-cut because of other white men expressing anti-Black sentiments. It wasn’t until years later that she learned, or realized, that it was all bullshit, just another part of the Jim Jones act. But in their happy early years, the couple would carefully and intentionally build a “rainbow family,” seeking out and adopting Black and brown children so that they could be seen as a “constant, unmistakable example of racial harmony” (94). He was a master at performing Ally Theater.
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A portion of his white congregants had once opposed civil rights, but he’d managed to attract them by focusing on his healing work and Bible-based preaching, using showmanship and grandstanding to pull them in. The others were “younger white members, who’d joined in part from feelings of guilt about privileged upbringings,” and for most of them, “this was their first chance to interact with lots of Black people on a daily basis… This was the egalitarian, interracial culture that they’d yearned for” (157). Jones and Peoples Temple gave them the opportunity to assuage their white guilt and feel good about their place in the world.
Before Jonestown, the congregation was first moved to California. There, Jones evoked the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. to recruit new members. Hundreds of poor Black Californians came to listen to this progressive white man preach against racial inequality, and he had even more opportunities to perform his Ally Theater and have more people under his control, indebted to him, belonging to him. When his adopted Black son came home and said the kids at school had called him a racial slur, Jones embellished the story so that he could rail against it in the pulpit. He would often use sermons like this to create and maintain an “us against them” narrative for his majority Black congregation.
Not only did Jones use social injustice to gain followers, he would also eventually use the threat of white retaliation and even genocide to scare Black congregants into staying loyal to him, because “it was critical that his followers believe he worked tirelessly to improve their lives at great risk to his own. That was the best assurance of their loyalty” (108). He often concocted threats against himself and faked multiple assassination attempts, even once enlisting his son to shoot at him from a hidden spot. Finally, he received a vision and a warning from God that America would be destroyed by a nuclear holocaust and Peoples Temple needed to leave the country to guarantee their safety. Moving to a foreign country would “increase Jones’ daily control of his followers, since they would be isolated from relatives and nonmember friends who might lure them away” (112). And so, he began to preach about The Promised Land.
From his many years studying Black churches and Black ministers’ rhetoric, Jones had an understanding of the significance that The Promised Land held in religious Black communities — “sometime, somehow, true believers would throw off their shackles — formerly the real, jangling chains of slavery, afterward poverty and racism — and be guided to a place where true equality and brotherhood exist” (290). He had already told them that the attempt to impeach Nixon would ultimately result in a Nixon dictatorship, and neo-Nazis would force “minorities” into concentration camps. Their only option was to leave America to escape this impending doom.
“I know a place where I can take you, where there’ll be no more racism, where there’ll be no more division, where there’ll be no more class exploitation. I know just the place. Oh, yes, I do” (289).
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Once they were in Guyana, conditions were hard. They were in the middle of the jungle. The earth did not yield the abundance of food that Jones had promised it would. They had to work long hours, farming the land, and doing whatever Jones told them to do. They were exhausted and overworked. Jones’ voice was heard constantly, blasting over the loudspeakers placed all around their compound. Abuse was rampant, as it had been for years, but it ramped up considerably—physical, sexual, psychological—as did Jones’ drug habit and paranoia. The Temple members were forced to sit through “White Nights” meant to terrify and exhaust them. These were meetings that lasted for hours in which Jones raged about the impending threats of the government coming to take them away from their Promised Land, and the name “White Night” was meant to invoke the fear that many of them already had of white people and institutions enacting violence against them.
Jones lied to them, telling them that towns in America had been taken over by the KKK, and the government was coming after “minorities” and sending Blacks to concentration camps. All mail that entered or left Jonestown was opened, read, and censored to ensure that there was no information coming in to contradict Jones’ narrative and to make sure that no one was telling the truth about the atrocities at Jonestown. He needed them loyal, and to keep them loyal, he had to keep them terrified. This is where the idea of mass, altruistic suicide found its footing. This life is full of suffering, but they could leave it behind if they made the collective decision to “rob their enemies of any triumph” and end their lives rather than be subjugated (389).
Even if they wanted to leave Jonestown, he had their passports, their money, their belongings, anything they had of value had been taken by Jones. In the months leading up to his final sermon, those who were caught trying to escape were found in the jungle, dragged back and forced to wear leg irons for several weeks as punishment. There were armed guards patrolling the tree lines and Jones carried a .357 Magnum a good amount of the time. Their panic, terror, and desperation was abiding and growing. On the day he delivered his last sermon, Jones had already ordered the murder of a congressman who had come to visit Jonestown and the several members who tried to leave with him. He asked everyone to join him at the pavilion where they always held their White Night meetings, and he let them know that it was time. They had to do this to spare the children and the elderly from enslavement.
“My opinion is that we be kind to children and kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly, because we are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone. They’re now going back to tell more lies, which mean more congressmen. And there’s no way, no way we can survive… Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired… We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world” (441, 448).
Those who refused Jones’ offer were forced to take it, either by poison or by bullet. From the newborns to the elders. They all had to go together. No one could stay. They all belonged to Jones. He decided that he didn’t want to be in this world anymore, and if he was going, they were going, too. He had done so much for them and they owed him their lives.
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When we remember Jonestown, we need to remember how Jim Jones performed his Ally Theater to lure so many poor Black people (and guilt-ridden white liberals) under his control, and eventually to their death. This is the part of the Jonestown story that never really gets talked about, but it is undoubtedly the most significant. So many of us have spent our lives knowing about the fictions of Jonestown, but not about its realities. When we retell this devastating story, we cannot erase these realities. We cannot forget how Jones exploited the most vulnerable, specifically seeking out low-income Black communities, profiting from them, and playing to their fears of white violence. And he did this, not because he wanted equality, equity, reparations, or liberation for Black people, but because he wanted power and control over them.
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