Peoples Temple tragedy haunts African American community

Many who recall the church say it could happen again

In the early 1970s, San Francisco’s Fillmore district was the flourishing soul of the city’s African American community. Folks sat on stoops and greeted friends strolling down the street. Neighbors gathered for gossip at the area’s barbershops and salons. By night, jazz and funk erupted from clubs.

But under the neighborly exterior seethed a growing disquiet. Rocked by late-1960s assassinations of African American leaders, a shifting economy and churches perplexed by the broiling times, the community was sucker-punched by a city-led urban renewal effort that tossed families from their homes and displaced entire housing blocks.

That left the population vulnerable, community leaders say, to the machinations of someone like Jim Jones. His Peoples Temple became a place of worship for many area blacks who sought opportunities in social justice activism not offered elsewhere. Those who followed him in 1978 to Jonestown in the jungles of Guyana — where more than 900 adults and children died in a suicide/murder on Nov. 18 of that year — simply were looking for an extension of the socialist utopia that Jones had promised them here.

“They saw this organization where they could be socially active and maintain their connection to Christ,” the Rev. Arnold Townsend told the community forum “Jonestown 25 Years Later: A Look Back,” held at the San Francisco Public Library recently. “These were some of the most normal, good folk you were ever going to meet.”

Jonestown survivors agree. Mental health counselor Nina Berry, 37, of Oakland was 12 when tragedy struck: Her grandfather, grandmother, two uncles, a cousin and her 8-year-old sister went to Jonestown. All died on that fateful evening.

Berry, a panelist at the Jonestown forum, told The Chronicle that the notion is incorrect that blacks at Jonestown — who comprised 70 percent of Jones’s congregation — were poor or deranged.

“My family wasn’t poor,” Berry said, adding that her grandmother and grandfather, officers at the Peoples Temple, were good people with strong values.

Still, even the most sturdy tend to waver when their community is hit with repeated shocks. The despair following the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations hardened into the militant activism of groups such as the Black Panthers — anathema to church-going older folks.

Perhaps worse, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s “urban renewal efforts” displaced thousands of families. Many of them had moved to the city from the South and elsewhere to work in San Francisco shipyards during and after World War II. But when the industrial economy began its early morph into the information age, black workers were left behind and black children received inadequate schooling, community leaders say.

“The plan was to get rid of us,” the Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, said. “We lost that sense of community. . . If black people had been receiving justice, fairness and quality education and the social services everyone had been getting, they wouldn’t have been vulnerable to someone like (Jones) coming along and promising short cuts to paradise.”

But Jones, whose Peoples Temple thrived in Redwood Valley near Ukiah, did step in.

At first, he leased an empty auditorium at the Macedonia Baptist Church at Sutter and Pierce streets with the blessing of its pastor, George Bedford, who conducted services in an adjacent hall. But, Brown said, “Before you knew anything, Jim Jones was stealing (Bedford’s) his members from across the hall. … He was saying all this stuff about black preachers who were chicken-eating women chasers.”

Jones eventually relocated, with the San Francisco school board’s approval, to Ben Franklin Junior High School on Geary Boulevard near Scott Street, then set up his temple on Geary. There, he preached social equality and a raceless society in sometimes raucous services that included music and dancing — and, occasionally, faith healing that eventually was proved to be faked.

Nonetheless, black parishioners were attracted both by his message and the Temple’s charity work: feeding seniors, tutoring students, taking bus trips to churches nationwide and spreading the Gospel. Young adults, especially, were magnetized by — some might say susceptible to — Jones’ ministrations, which included spirited seminars on the evils of capitalism.

“I remember some of the young kids who were there, and they were going through real serious problems at home,” said Donneter Lane, who gives “70 and over” as her age. “So this was a time for them to escape and try to get themselves together.”

Jones became a local political power supported by such leaders as then- Gov. Jerry Brown, Supervisor Harvey Milk, Mayor George Moscone, District Attorney Joseph Freitas and then state Assemblyman Willie Brown, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article. Jones was a hard man to buck, though some black leaders tried.

The Rev. Brown remembers Jones claiming he was black, and trying to get elected to the Black Leadership Forum. Brown says he told a heated forum meeting, “I don’t care what he’s done, you mark my words, he’s a cultist, he’s a charlatan and a crook, and you will rue the day you let this man into this group.” (Jones lost by one vote out of a total of 50.)

Black community members and Jonestown survivors say conditions that set the stage for Jonestown are mirrored today in the violence, drug abuse, single- mother households, joblessness and poverty troubling some local black communities.

“Nothing has changed,” Berry, the Oakland mental health counselor, said. “The scary thing is that something like that could happen again.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Nov. 23, 2003
Dave Ford

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday November 25, 2003.
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