SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — In 1978, a massacre overseas sent shockwaves through San Francisco.
More than 900 members of The People’s Temple, a church based in the city, were killed in South America.
November 18, 2020 marks the 42nd anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre.
The Reverend Jim Jones cast his spell over his followers at the People’s Temple headquarters in San Francisco in the 1970s. The building is a post office now.
Some of those followers he led into the jungle of Guyana in South America. It was supposed to be a egalitarian paradise, but it ended in horror.
Nearly a thousand people died, most of them were Black and almost a third were children.
The children were murdered first, then the adults. Some willingly drank a cyanide-laced drink, but others were forced at gunpoint. Jones died by gunshot.
The grievous atrocity is where the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” comes from.
The reverend expanded The People’s Temple into both San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 70s. He appeared both magnetic and down to earth to his followers. No suits or robes, he was seen as plain old Jim, a man who spoke out about our responsibility to society, working together to create a perfect utopia.
His message of social equality took root among Black and brown communities. With their help, he became a powerful figure in California politics and was known for helping leaders like the late Mayor George Moscone get elected.
Even Governor Jerry Brown would show up when Jones needed him — he had a way of bringing in the votes by the hundreds of thousands. But, stories of abuse began to surface, like physical beatings when a follower did something wrong.
A combination of negative press attention and drug-fueled paranoia drove Jones to establish a colony in Guyana, which he named Jonestown after himself.
He lured his followers with the promise of building a socialist paradise. Yulanda Williams followed him with her husband and 1-year-old daughter but quickly regretted it. Upon arrival, they were told to hand over their passports and money.
“My husband looked at me and I looked at him, we couldn’t say anything to each other but realizing that a grave, grave mistake had been made,” Williams said.
Williams convinced Jones to let her family leave about a year before the massacre.
“People are being malnourished. People are being physically punished, verbally abused. There was consistent brainwashing going on because all day long and all night long when you try to sleep, all you would hear was him on the PA system yelling and screaming.”
It was similar reports of abuse that brought Congressman Leo Ryan of South San Francisco to fly down to Guyana to investigate with a delegation. It was a visit that started well, but ended with some Temple members asking to go home with Ryan.
On the way out at the airstrip, Ryan and his group were ambushed. It consisted of the congressman, plus three journalists and a Jonestown escapee. They were all killed.
Ryan’s aide at the time, Jackie Speier, was one of the wounded, but survived by playing dead after being shot five times. She is now a congresswoman herself, first elected as a U.S. Representative in California in 2008.
What happened next was at first considered a mass suicide, but is now understood to be a mass murder.
Pastor Hue Fortson says he was ordered to leave his wife and 4-year-old son in Jonestown and head back to San Francisco about two months before the massacre. Because of the overwhelming tangle of bodies, his wife wasn’t identified for over a week. His son was too young for dental records and never identified. It took him a long time to get over it.
“I felt like I was less than two cents. I gave up on my parenting rights, I gave up on my husband rights. I gave up my rights just as a person because I believe this man had a better plan than myself and it took time, it took prayer. It took me coming to a place of recognizing and realizing that I, like everybody else, I’m important in this world. I’m not an accident,” Fortson said.
Fortson believes he was spared the fate of his friends and family to spread God’s word and now heads his own congregation in the high desert.
Williams eventually joined the San Francisco Police Department, rising in rank to acting captain. She says she hears echoes of Jonestown repeating today, an echo that has grown louder now that she lost her mother, another former People’s Temple member, to coronavirus in July.
“I sometimes listen to our commander in chief, he sounds so much and the rhetoric is so similar to that of Jim Jones. But it is absolutely eerie for me and I think that over 240,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID,” said Williams. “When we say Jonestown is the most tragic incident of a massacre of people, I say don’t forget about the commander in chief who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.”
Jonestown had been considered the largest number of Americans killed in a deliberate act, up until 9-11.