Thirty-five years after he lay dead in a clearing in the sweltering jungles of Guyana, the ghost of Jim Jones still haunts the survivors and families of the more than 900 men, women and children who died in a mass murder-suicide tragedy instigated by the leader of the Peoples Temple of Love.
But, in death, as he was in life, Jones’ legacy remains one of controversy, this time centering on how the events of Nov. 18, 1978, in a short-lived settlement called Jonestown in Guyana’s Northwest District should be memorialized.
The 35th anniversary is expected to see two competing memorials at a site in the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, Calif., where hundreds of the victims were buried after their bodies were repatriated to the United States.
The Guyana Emergency Relief Committee placed a marker in May 1979 at a spot near the graves and on May 29, 2011, about 150 survivors, relatives and friends dedicated a memorial comprising four granite plaques on a hillside where 409 bodies were buried, according to a story by Fielding M. McGhee III in the online Jonestown Report.
Those spearheading the effort included Jim Jones Jr., one of Jones’ adopted sons. The plaque attracted criticism because it lists Jones’ name among the names of the 918 or so people who died in Jonestown.
The strongest criticism has come from the Rev. Dr. Jynona Norwood, pastor of the Miracles in Action Faith Center in Los Angeles, who lost 27 family members in Jonestown, including her mother. She heads the Guyana Tribute Foundation, Cherish the Wall Project.
“Putting Jim Jones’ name on the memorial is like putting Adolph Hitler’s name on a Holocaust memorial,” Norwood told South Florida Times by phone Tuesday. “It’s like putting the names of the killers of Columbine, Aurora and Newtown on the names of memorials to the victims,” she added, referring to recent cases of mass shootings in the U.S. Norwood, who has been in discussions with Evergreen officials to erect a memorial to the 400 or so children who died in Jonestown, sued to have the monument taken down – or at the least to have Jones’ name removed.
She lost her request to the court for an injunction and the case was scheduled to be heard this week at the Alameda County Superior Court. Regardless of the outcome, Norwood scheduled the dedication of what she calls the “Cherishing the Children Memorial Wall” for Monday, the Jonestown anniversary.
Comfort and solace
Norwood said her mother Fairy Norwood and 17 children were among her family members who died in Jonestown. She said her son Ed Norwood was taken into Peoples Temple as a child and she “kidnapped” him when he was 5 and went into hiding, fearing for their safety. She said she had refused Jones’ offer to join his Peoples Temple as a youth pastor because “I did not believe in him.” She has been focusing on the child victims for some three decades, trying to raise funds for the memorial wall.
“They deserve to be remembered,” she said. “These children were 100 percent innocent.” Norwood has received support from several people, including U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
“Cherish the Children Memorial Wall will provide a place of comfort and solace to the children’s relatives and loved ones as well as to those who wish to honor the memory of Congressman Leo Ryan and all those who lost their lives,” Pelosi said in a letter to Norwood.
Pelosi made no reference to the dispute over Jones’ name on the existing memorial. But U.S. Rep. Laura Richardson also of California did, saying in a note that it was “a total injustice that is unacceptable and should be removed immediately.”
Famed poet Maya Angelou expressed support for Norwood’s plan for the children’s wall, saying she would write a dedication” to be inscribed on it.
The upshot, though, is that the 35th anniversary of Jonestown will witness two monuments to the victims and two separate memorial gatherings at Evergreen Cemetery. Besides the event planned by Norwood for 11 a.m. Monday, other survivors and families and friends will hold a memorial service at 2 p.m., coming together “to spend time with other loved ones and share treasured memories of those who lost their lives 35 years ago,” according to an announcement.
Jones, who started his church in San Francisco, moved his congregation of nearly 1,000, mostly elderly blacks and children, to Guyana, citing harassment by the authorities and the media questioning his bona fides as a religious leader and accusing him of being a cult leader. He chose the English-speaking South American country in the belief that a nuclear war was coming and this would be the safest place during the anticipated nuclear fallout.
After an embarrassing event at the most prominent Roman Catholic church in the capital Georgetown, when the local press accused him of faking cures against diseases such as cancer, Jones moved his followers to the interior, carving out a settlement in the jungle.
The end came when Ryan, who was cited by Pelosi, a California congressman, went to Guyana to investigate reports that Americans were being held against their will at the Peoples Temple. Ryan’s overnight trip went well but, as he was about to leave the next day, an altercation broke out and a Temple member stabbed him in the arm.
Ryan and the press corps following him hurriedly left for an airstrip seven miles away, along with some defectors. They were ambushed by armed followers of Jones and Ryan and several others were shot dead.
As that was happening, Jones presided over a bizarre ritual code word “White Lightning” in which his followers drank a concoction of soft drink and poison. All but two of them died. He himself was mysteriously shot through the temple, the handgun found several feet from his body.
The survivors on the scene were Grover Davis, 79, who ran off and hid in a hole, and Hyacinth Thrash, 76, who said she had been sick in bed for two weeks and apparently had been overlooked when Temple followers were rounded up for the final “crossing over,” as Jones put it.
The Associated Press reported that the Guyana government, which had refused to memorialize the tragedy, finally erected a memorial plaque at the site in 2009, “a simple, white stone plaque was unveiled with little fanfare.”
Guyana-born Mohamed Hamaludin was one of the first two journalists to enter Jonestown after the tragedy, the other being Charles Krause, then with the Washington Post. Comprehensive documentation of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple can be found at a site known as “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & People Temple,” hosted by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University.