40 years later, SF may finally get Jonestown memorial

Like most cities, San Francisco has its fair share of memorials.

Statues, busts, and plaques commemorate noteworthy events and people throughout The City. There’s the Korean War Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Comfort Women Memorial and the National AIDS Memorial Grove, just to name a few.

But 40 years after the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown — which claimed the lives of more than 900 members of Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, mostly African Americans from San Francisco — there is still no memorial anywhere in The City dedicated to their memories.

That oversight may finally be remedied thanks to a grassroots effort.

“The initiative of this effort came from the rank and file members in the community. They sort of drafted the city into participating,” said James Taylor, a professor of politics at University of San Francisco.

Two local nonprofits, the New Community Leadership Foundation and San Francisco Beautiful, are working with San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks to redevelop the Mini Park in the Fillmore District at Fillmore and Turk streets.

Darcy Brown, executive director of San Francisco Beautiful, said she was approached over the summer by community members asking if the renovations might include a Jonestown memorial.

“As these things do, it gets in the air, enters the ethos, and we suddenly had people calling us and saying they heard we’re doing something about Jonestown,” she said. “There’s never been anything in San Francisco about this — nothing, zero.”

Darcy Brown said she felt a memorial in the Mini Park would be more appropriate than a memorial at 1859 Geary Blvd., the former site of the Peoples Temple church. The original building was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and a post office now sits on the site.

“Geary is one of the busiest intersections in the city. Can you imagine being a family member and going there?” she said. “So we thought it would be appropriate to have a memorial wall as a permanent installation in the park.”

Taylor said placing the memorial in the Mini Park, which is a half mile from the site on Geary Boulevard, would also be more symbolic than placing it at the church site. Temple members walked past the park every day for years on their way to and from church.

“It says the people who died were from this community, not just one spot. They were from the Fillmore, not Peoples Temple,” Taylor said.

Most of Jones’ followers were African Americans from the Fillmore District.

“It says a lot that San Francisco has not honored the sacrifice of all those people who were basically marginalized and underserved people of San Francisco,” said Rev. Amos Brown, a pastor at Third Baptist Church and president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP.

“(Jones) knew of the pain of black people in this town, and he seized the moment,” Amos Brown said. “He was smart enough to know where the need was.”

Taylor said that Jones tapped into an African American community that had been besieged since Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, and mimicked the style of black preachers to gain followers.

“The majority of people who died had their base in the Fillmore and operated out of that community. It was effectively a Fillmore church, like any of the churches in the community,” Taylor said.

Taylor also said a memorial is long overdue.

“Many people don’t know anything about the Peoples Temple – or only know the almost-slur of ‘don’t drink the Kool-Aid,’” he said.

The Peoples Temple religious group was founded in Indiana by Jim Jones in the 1950s. The group migrated to California in the years that followed, and later expanded into San Francisco in the 1970s, eventually making The City their headquarters.

Jones was an influential member of the San Francisco political community for years, but he came under scrutiny as reports of intimidation and abuse came to light from ex-church members who said they had been prevented from leaving the group. Jones fled San Francisco in 1977 to a commune the group had built in Guyana, known as Jonestown, and took many of his followers with him.

The mass murder-suicide for which Jonestown is most remembered today took place a year later, on Nov 18, 1978, prompted by a visit from U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan on a fact-finding trip.

After learning that several Temple members confided in the congressman their desire to leave during the visit, Jones ordered his men to kill Ryan. Five people were shot to death in that attack, including Ryan, one defector and three journalists — among them Greg Robinson, a photographer for the San Francisco Examiner.

Many more were injured, including Jackie Speier, a legislative aide to Ryan. She was later elected to the California legislature and then the U.S. Congress, where she has fought for gun control legislation.

Jones then ordered the deaths of his more than 900 followers. Many died after drinking cyanide-laced fruit drinks, although it may not be the picture of suicide and blind allegiance that has been formed in pop culture in the years that followed.

“That’s how I understand Peoples Temple. Most of the people were murdered and did not commit suicide,” Taylor said. “The majority of followers were not tuned into the murder plan.”

“I see it as racial genocide,” said Yulanda Williams, a survivor of Jonestown and now a lieutenant with the San Francisco Police Department. “It was mass murder. I will never believe that 917 of my brothers and sisters, including little children that I knew, would ever just willingly say ‘I’m really to die, help me take my life now.’”

Williams spent four months at Jonestown in 1977, but was able to escape with her mother, husband, and daughter after demanding permission to leave from Jones. She said Jones made her promise not to tell Temple members in the U.S. the horrors she observed in Guyana

“I hadn’t seen any meat, I hadn’t seen an egg. We were surviving off of rice pudding, coconuts, and peanut butter sandwiches,” she said.

They drilled her for three days, asking her to repeat the cover story and canned answers they agreed she would say when asked questions about her time at Jonestown, before finally allowing them to depart.

Williams said it is well past time for a monument in San Francisco, to honor those who died, and to share with young people how they were lured into Peoples Temple, so it is never repeated again.

She repeated the saying which was displayed above the entry to the pavilion at Jonestown, and which she said Jones used periodically at church: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“If we don’t talk about it, if we ignore it, it’s going to happen again,” she said. “It doesn’t have to happen in a church, it can happen anywhere. Gangs can be cults. Any organization that has a hierarchy can be cult-like.”

Williams envisions not just an outdoor monument, but an interactive exhibit where audio recordings from survivors could be played to share their stories.

San Francisco Rec and Park officials said that while the memorial has been mentioned at public planning meetings, it has not gone through a vetting and approval process and is not currently included in the planned renovations to the Mini Park, which are scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2020.

“As with the many community-driven ideas we are approached with, we will explore this possibility. No work has been done on this idea as of yet,” Sarah Madland, director of policy and public affairs for Rec and Park, said in a statement.

Darcy Brown said a design for the proposed memorial has not been decided on, and they will hold a design contest to solicit ideas. One possibility she said is a wall listing the names of the Jonestown victims, similar to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

However, at least one name will not be on the list.

“The survivors in San Francisco have made it clear they don’t want Jim Jones’ name to be a part of it,” Taylor said. “That will not be a controversy in San Francisco because that’s a non-starter.”

Jones’ name does appear on a memorial at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, which has been a source of contention. The community of survivors in Oakland is split, Taylor said. Some view Jones in a more sympathetic light, while others believe his name has no place among the other victims.

“James Jones never should have been placed on anything that listed the other 917 people,” Williams said.

Williams believes the names of others who participate in the massacre should be omitted, too, including those who mixed the drink.

“They have blood stains on their hands of over 900 people,” she said.

This story has been updated with an additional statement to clarify that the memorial project has not yet been vetted or approved by Rec and Park or city officials, but is still in the conceptual stage.

Michael Toren
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Michael Toren

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