Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The 37th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre this week invites an examination of what the people it attracted were running from in the first place.
37 years ago this week, 900 people died after drinking a cyanide-laced cocktail foisted upon them by a charismatic leader named Jim Jones. It’s known in our collective memory today as the “Jonestown Massacre.” On this anniversary, an examination of what the ill-fated group was running from is as important as the narrative about the person and place they ran to.
The place was a 3,852-acre plot in Guyana called Jonestown, named after Jones, who led his Peoples Temple religious gathering (or cult, as it’s more commonly referred to) there from its previous base in San Francisco. Jones billed the Guyanese site as a post-racial society, and by all appearances it truly was a diverse cohort during its brief lifespan. The Peoples Temple had blossomed in the 1970s, during which its membership expanded largely with African Americans drawn to Jones’ gospel of racial equality.
Jonestown survivor Teri Buford O'Shea asked in The Atlantic a few years ago questions that have riddled a lot of people’s minds over the decades since this happened: “Why did 918 people leave this country and go with Jim Jones to Guyana? ... Why did this group feel they'd rather live in a jungle than in San Francisco, Oakland, Atlanta, wherever they were living?”
The Jonestown site in Guyana was supposed to serve as a campus to which black people and other races could flock to escape the racial discord engulfing U.S. cities in the 1970s. In the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination, anti-black racism had transitioned from nonviolent civil disobedience to racial conflagrations and full-scale gun exchanges between militant black outfits and the police. Many black people were looking for a new environment.
Sikivu Hutchinson, a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California’s Center for Feminist Research, writes in her book White Nights, Black Paradise about how the Peoples Temple appealed to African American women by organizing around issues like affirmative action, affordable housing, and police brutality. Writing about the Jonestown anniversary in The Huffington Post Thursday, Hutchinson pointed out that some of the Temple set up a base in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, a historically black community, where it took on “gentrifying developers and challenged the city's attempts to push out poor people of color through eminent domain.”
“For black Temple members who'd sought refuge from Southern Jim Crow in California—only to experience racially restrictive covenants, job discrimination and state violence—Jonestown evoked African Americans' diasporic quest for home and identity,” writes Hutchinson.
A lot of people in the 1970s were feeling that race relations in the nation were irrevocably broken, as expressed in reports from the Kerner and Rockefeller commissions. For Jones, and others like him, this meant there was an opportunity to construct what they thought racial reconciliation looked like, and see if it could sell. He developed his pre-Jonestown organization, the Peoples Temple, on the premise that it would be a safe space for African Americans to gather with whites, free from bigotry. It was a pitch that hundreds of black people bought, despite the white paternalism Jones exhibited, or his pre-Dolezal-ian penchant for identifying himself as black, or as a “nigger.”
To that extent, the original intentions behind Peoples Temple and Jonestown were similar to those behind Floyd McKissick’s planned racial utopia, Soul City, North Carolina. Soul City had a much different ending than Jonestown, though, in that it did not involve a megalomaniac leader like Jones nor a population that would meet its end through mass suicide and homicide.
Similar racial visionaries stepped forward in the ‘70s looking to fill voids created during periods of racial calamity and urban unrest. Like Jones, they used the language and the pedagogy of the oppressed to sell forsaken African Americans on the promise of new villages, communes, and cities where racial harmony would rule the day.
Another example, the Nation of Yahweh, was a mini-empire of apartment buildings, warehouses, and a slew of other commercial enterprises in one of Miami’s poor black communities in the ‘70s. Its leader, Yahweh ben Yahweh (born Hulon Mitchell Jr.) fancied himself a Messiah for black people and got pretty far in his plans to build a city within Miami for his “nation”—a group that closely resembled the House of Israel, which was another a planned racial utopia in Guyana led by a motivational speaker from Cleveland. Mitchell’s nation-building plans were dashed, however, when he was convicted in 1990 of being part of a conspiracy to kill white people, after ex-Nation members testified about being ordered to bring him body parts as proof that they carried out these killings.
Then there was the Nuwaubian Nation, also built in the 1970s. This one was founded by Dwight York, a black Muslim who kickstarted the group in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he had purchased a couple dozen apartment buildings to house his followers, and ran a number of retail businesses to fund the organization’s growth. York later purchased a 476-acre plot of land in Putnam, Georgia, to build a new Nuwaubian compound upon. Like Jonestown and the Nation of Yahweh, it attracted hundreds of African Americans with promises like this one, once made by York: "I'm talking about a real nation, our own nation … With our own passports, with our own tax system, where no one tells us what to do but us."
York’s vision failed after he was taken down by Nuwaubian defectors who helped send York to jail for sexually molesting underage girls within their secluded community. The Georgia compound decorated with huge Nuwaubian pyramids and obelisk-like structures is now no more.
There were also the Rajneeshees, a community that sprung up in Oregon in the early ‘80s under the helm of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a spiritual teacher from India whose goal was to create a religious utopia. The 64,000-acre ranch he built became a base camp for thousands seeking spiritual enlightenment—sorta like the Esalen-ian retreat Mad Men’s Don Draper ran off to. Frustrated with local land-use policies and other politics standing in the way of his plans, Rajneesh ordered a salmonella attack on local restaurants that ended up poisoning hundreds of people. It’s considered “the largest biological terrorism attack in U.S. history.” Criminal charges for that, illegal wiretapping, and immigration fraud finally cancelled Rajneesh’s hopes of building a new city.
How was Rajneesh able to attract so many people to what turned out to become a murder-minded mafia? As with Peoples Temple and the other examples, Rajneeshpuram was populated by people seeking righteous goals.
“In this womblike environment, the Rajneeshees,” wrote Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ginny Wiegand in 1986, “concentrated on freeing themselves of anger, hate, confusion and what their guru considered artificial, unnecessary allegiances to church, state, nationality and ambition.”
Jonestown was very much built on this same premise. In the University of California-Davis sociology professor John R. Hall’s Jonestown book Gone from the Promised Land, he writes that the people who bailed from American cities for Guyana were those “of good will from all walks of life, who consolidated a critical understanding of modern society, and put prodigious energies toward building what they hoped would be a better world.”
Such appeals were especially attractive for African Americans, and black women in particular, as Hutchinson explains in White Nights, Black Paradise. In her Huffington Post blog, she writes, “The inequitable conditions that compelled black women to commit their lives to the [Peoples Temple] church and its mission are still relevant today.”
Today, Jonestown mostly symbolizes the disillusionment of the built racial utopia. These places were intentional communities that led people to fates far out of step with that mission.
The takeaway from these examples could simply be about how the allure of utopias can, like most seductions, lead to tragic, sometimes unintentional consequences. But they also leave open the question of whether a racial utopia—a place premised on the absence of racism—can really exist. None so far have been successful, either because they shot themselves in the foot, or were shot down by people who don’t want a racial utopia to happen. It looks like there’s little alternative other than for people of different races to confront racism where they live, without retreat or surrender.