In its special website section devoted to 30 years since Jonestown, the San Francisco Chronicle has republished a copy of a 1977 report on Jim Jones and People's Temple by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy. The investigative report marked a turning point for People's Temple, an arc towards the catastrophic end that would come one year later. Before this exposé was published in New West magazine (because back then, the Chronicle's editor refused to run it), Jim Jones enjoyed what amounted to broad support and protection from news organizations, powerful social figures, and politicians who saw the influential preacher as a "deliverer of votes."
Collectively, they turned a blind eye to mounting reports of coercion, corruption, and physical and sexual abuse within his church. And they bear some responsibility for the tragedy that followed.
I agree with what one sfgate.com commenter wrote about the two tenacious reporters who fought to produce this piece:
30 years on, this is a piece that should be required reading by all journalism students at any level. To quote the 1998 article on why this was published in New West rather than the Chronicle, "Kilduff said that when he later proposed a story on Jim Jones, (San Francisco Chronicle city editor) Gavin said 'we had done a profile and that was sufficient.' I went at him several times, and said I thought we should do more. He didn't see it that way.'" Jones had co-opted the powers that were in the City, including the Chronicle, and only the persistence of Kilduff began to reveal the horrible truth.
Three decades later, the whole article is a must-read. I'll paste the final two paragraphs here:
[S]omething must be said about the numerous public officials and political figures who openly courted and befriended Jim Jones. While it appears that none of the public officials from [California] Governor [Jerry] Brown on down knew about the inner world of Peoples Temple, they have left the impression that they used Jones to deliver votes at election time and never asked any questions. They never asked about the bodyguards. Never asked about the church's locked doors. Never asked why Jones's followers were so obsessively protective of him. And apparently, some never asked because they didn't want to know.
The story of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple is not over. In fact, it has only begun to be told. If there is any solace to be gained from the tale of exploitation and human foible told by the former temple members in these pages, it is that even such a power as Jim Jones cannot always contain his followers. Those who left had nowhere to go and every reason to fear pursuit. Yet they persevered. If Jones is ever to be stripped of his power, it will not be because of vendetta or persecution, but rather because of the courage of these people who stepped forward and spoke out.
Inside Peoples Temple, Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy, Monday, August 1, 1977. (SFGATE.com). Here is a PDF of the original 1977 article (via Jonestown Institute). The SFGate web feature on 30 years after Jonestown includes a number of related features, both archived and new, all well worth reading.
What lesson should we learn from this today? Why does this matter now? Snip from an extensive piece in today's Washington Post by Charles A. Krause, one of the journalists who survived the November, 1978 trip to Jonestown with Congressman Ryan:
Many Jonestown survivors and their families believe that the lessons of Jonestown are to remember and guard against demagogues who use religion as a cover for fraud, deception and imposing their own sometimes dangerous social and political beliefs on their naive and unsuspecting followers.
It was that theme that dominated Tuesday's memorial service at the mass grave in Oakland. In an emotional and highly charged address, the Rev. Amos Brown, bishop at San Francisco's Third Baptist Church and president of the San Francisco NAACP, warned the mourners to beware of religious leaders who claim to have all the answers and insinuate themselves into politics, as Jones did so effectively in San Francisco.
"Good religion elevates folk, it teaches people to think for themselves. Good religion isn't authoritarian. Good religion isn't bigoted," he said. "Open up your eyes, America. America isn't a theocracy, it's a democracy. . . . And that is the lesson we must learn from Jonestown."
Boing Boing posts on Jim Jones, Jonestown and People's Temple:
- Jonestown, 30 years later: original audio recordings from People's Temple and Guyana.
- Jonestown, 30 years later: Life and Death of People's Temple (PBS video).
- Jonestown, 30 years later: interview with a survivor (video)
- Jonestown, 30 years later: From Silver Lake To Suicide
- Jonestown, 30 years later: "Father Cares," NPR documentary from 1981
- Raven: The Untold Story of The Reverend Jim Jones and His People
- Andrew Brandou on his Jonestown paintings