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The Jonestown Massacre And the Seduction of the 'Racial Utopia'

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.
San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, right, shakes hands with Reverend Jim Jones, left, after Jones and Reverend Dr. A. C. Ubalde Jr., center, were sworn to serve on the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1977.
San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, right, shakes hands with Reverend Jim Jones, left, after Jones and Reverend Dr. A. C. Ubalde Jr., center, were sworn to serve on the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1977. ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.