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The Fillmore, Jonestown and the reckoning of racism

People clap their hands in a rhythmic one-two beat and sway left and right as they sing along to the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power.”

The energy is palpable. The gathering, though born of tragedy, overflows with harmony and honor — so is, and has always been, the perseverance and resiliency of black people in San Francisco.

For the first time in 40 years, San Francisco held a public event to commemorate the tragic loss of life in the Jonestown massacre in 1978. The public ceremony, dubbed “Homecoming: Day of Atonement in the Fillmore, Reclaiming Heritage in San Francisco,” organized by the New Leadership Foundation (NCLF), an African American nonprofit organization, and San Francisco Beautiful, brought to the forefront the deaths of many African Americans at Jonestown in Guyana.

Ching Wong/SFBay
Ching Wong/SFBay
Tami Bryant, a community event organizer, displays the photos of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy during a memorial ceremony of 40 Years After Jonestown at the Fillmore Heritage Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, November 18, 2018.

Seven of every ten victims at Jonestown were black, according to the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple website, published under the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. The majority of the 909 victims at Jonestown were black women — nearly half of those who died —  with black men the second largest group, at 22.8 percent.

The overall population of Peoples Temple members at Jonestown was 70 percent black and 25 percent white. The majority of Peoples Temple members came from California, where the majority was also black. Many believe the biggest proportion of black Peoples Temple members came from San Francisco’s Fillmore District, once known as the Harlem of the West. The Peoples Temple headquarters was in the Fillmore, on Geary Boulevard between Fillmore and Steiner streets.

The public commemoration, what many view as long overdue, also represents a reckoning of a chapter of San Francisco’s racist history, an acknowledgment the self-proclaimed progressive city, it appears, has ignored for the past 40 years.

This neglect is significant because the mainstream narrative surrounding Jonestown and the Peoples Temple movement has minimized the importance of black lives within the movement, and their loss of lives in the massacre. The Fillmore — at the time riddled by apartheid-like policies, and ultimately destroyed by The City’s redevelopment agency —  became the ideal place for madman Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple, to push his rhetoric of racial integration and equality.

In a twisted yet familiar vein, Jones took advantage of America’s most sinister heirloom: Deceiving, mistreating and undermining African Americans without repercussions. The danger of the Peoples Temple was its veil of deception, masked beneath the nobillity of social justice by Jones, a white man from Indianapolis, to dupe a marginalized community that desperately sought equality and justice.

At the time, according to Rev. Arnold Townsend, black people in the Fillmore were looking for solutions and hope. Jones, preaching racial integration and having proven rapport with many of San Francisco’s liberal political leaders, masked himself as a helpful ally to the black cause.

Townsend, standing on the stage of the Fillmore Heritage Center’s auditorium, addresses the crowd:

“[Jones] talked in sound politics. He had a revolutionary message that he brought to oppressed people. He brought it to a hurting community that had already been torn apart and [destroyed] by redevelopment.”

Townsend pointed to the assassinations of prominent civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, whose deaths echoed a sense of hopelessness among black people across the nation.

Townsend continues:

“Here was someone who was talking about changing conditions of people. So, don’t be so critical of the people who followed [Jones] because people were looking for something; people are always looking for something; and people are still looking for someone who is going to speak truth to power and deal with their present situation.”

James Taylor, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, said political leaders were ashamed of what happened with Jones and the Peoples Temple. He said they distanced themselves from it and separated the movement from the community. Taylor is currently authoring a book on Peoples Temple, Jim Jones and California black politics.

Taylor echoes Townsend’s sentiment. Taylor says the Peoples Temple movement emerged out of the context of the black social and political condition in San Francisco at the time. Jones seized the opportunity and walked into the “vortex of leadership and charismatic personality,” which was “epitomized” by people like Angela Davis, a political activist, according to Taylor.

Taylor told SFBay that understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple as a religion, as bad religion, as a cult,” misses the point of its movement:

“It was originally all about the struggle of the black life in America and the fact that ten years after Dr. King, the people were still struggling and the promises the city made to people here through housing and other policies.”

Taylor emphasizes the short window of “black life” in terms of community in San Francisco from 1940s to the 1970s. Many African Americans came to the Bay Area to work in the shipyards during World War II. Redevelopment during the 1940s through 1970s, subjectively labeling the Fillmore — the Harlem of the West — as “ghetto” and “blighted.” Thus began the destruction of the neighborhood and displacement of many African Americans.

Taylor says the Jonestown massacre added to an already dwindling black population. The part of black culture he didn’t take out, Jones “devastated because everybody was attached to it,” according to Taylor:

“We have to recover Temples People from Jones, from cult, from the suicide, and put it back into the context of the black community, [which] was the base of all of it. It was the black community that [Jones] parasitically attached himself to because the community was in distress.”

Peoples Temple finds its origin in Indianapolis, Jones’ hometown, where he garnered the menace of people, who, it appears, were not ready for the mixed-race “Wings of Deliverance” congregation Jones founded in 1956, according to researcher Tobin Dickerson at the University of Virginia. Jones led about 80 Peoples Temple members — half black, half white — to Redwood Valley in 1965 before setting up camp in the Fillmore in the 1970s.

Townsend says that Jones would find out what people’s license plate numbers and the make of their cars were when they first walked inside his gatherings. He would then reiterate that information to the people as a “prophet, and they thought it was divinely inspired,” according to Townsend.

His manipulation also stretched into San Francisco politics, where he would use “donations, bouquets of flattery and personal charm” to woo politicians like George Moscone and Willie Brown, according to author David Talbot in his book, Season of the Witch.

Talbot writes:

“Jones could be counted on to deliver busloads of obedient, well-dressed disciples to demonstrations, campaign rallies, and political precincts. The city’s liberal Burton machine quickly identified the Peoples Temple juggernaut as a potentially game-changing ally in its long battle to take over city hall.”

Yet, despite Jones’ outward propaganda of racial inclusion, the inner workings of his organization adhered to a racial hierarchy, Talbot writes:

“While church membership was primarily black, the thirty-seven member planning commission, as Jones called his leadership council, was dominated by white women — at least six of whom were his sexual conquests and firmly under his sway.”

In 1977, Jones relocated the Peoples Temple to remote Guyana in South America under the disguise of establishing a utopia: Jonestown.

Yulanda Williams, a 62-year-old San Francisco Police Department lieutenant and a Jonestown survivor, was a member of Peoples Temple from 1968 until 1978.

Williams also speaks to the crowd in the Fillmore Heritage Center’s auditorium. When they first arrived in Jonestown, Williams says they had to surrender their passports. They had no return tickets or any other way to return to the U.S.

It was also then, that Williams realized she had to escape Jonestown. She attributes her keen conversational and negotiation skills, as the kid of a preacher, to how she was able to talk Jones into letting her and her family leave Guyana. She and her family were “afforded to be released” from Guyana on June 29, 1977, the year before the massacre. Williams says she and her family are the only recorded family who was granted the permission to leave Jonestown.

Jones ordered his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch on November 18, 1978. The Jonestown massacre was, before 9/11, the largest single incident of intentional civilian death in U.S. history.

Taylor views the death of the Peoples Temple as the death and end of the 1960s; it ended the black movement in America, Taylor says.

Williams tells the crowd:

“November 18 was described by Jim Jones as a ‘revolutionary suicide.’ However, I declare to you, today, that it was not revolutionary suicide; it was an orchestrated mind control experiment, which resulted in the racial genocide and massive inhalation of people of color — primarily those who look like me, black like me.”

Williams continues:

“[Jones] characterized himself as a disciple, spokesperson and living god existing to protect black Americans. In the end, I can conclude, as all of you can, that his actions made him no better than Adolf Hitler.”

Silence persists. Some mumbled “amens” rise. But the weight of Williams words, it appears, known to be true by so many, clings to the atmosphere like thick smoke.

Williams goes on:

“I am, and I will always be, a victorious black survivor, and I am an American.”

Williams raises her right arm and clenches her fist:

“And I want to say, Power to the people.”

Rev. Dr. Amos Brown, who moved to San Francisco’s Fillmore in 1976, was wary of Jones from the beginning. Brown went to the first black leadership force meeting at Geary and Stanyan streets, where they debated whether or not they should accept Jones as a member. He advised the audience at the meeting of the impending danger he believed Jones presented at the time, calling Jones a “crook and cultist.” By one vote, Jones lost becoming a member of the black leadership force.

Nevertheless, Jones won over key black church leaders in the Bay Area like “Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial in the Tenderloin and J. Alfred Smith of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland,” Talbot writes in Season of the Witch.

Brown addresses the crowd:

“Jonestown would never have become the travesty that it was if San Francisco had kept its promise to black folks … They came up with the plan called urban renewal (redevelopment), which in actuality was black removal.”

Brown adds:

“The ground was fertile for a marginalized, disposed people to be taken advantage of by any crook who came along.”

Sikivu Hutchinson, an American feminist, novelist, playwright and director, also in attendance, speaks to the destruction Jonestown had on black women in particular. Hutchinson says the state of California was believed to be the antidote to:

“… the deep, institutional terrorism and sexual violence that black folks were experiencing on a ritualized basis in the deep Jim Crow South and … in the de facto midwest.”

Amid the erasure of black women’s role in Peoples Temple and their disproportionate deaths, Hutchinson also attributes the “white eurocentric, white supremacist lens” through which Jonestown has been retold. Black women and men in that narrative, according to Hutchinson, were “reduced to gullible spectators and voiceless victims, a colorful backdrop to the antics of evils yet charismatic white saviors,” Hutchinson tells the crowd:

“Black women loved, lived, struggled and died in disproportionate numbers in Jonestown … And we need to take a moment to allow that to resonate because the world continues to erase that. The world continues to disrespect, invalidate and dehumanize black women’s lives in multiple ways, and Jonestown is [an encapsulation] of that.”

Hutchinson says she partnered with Leslie Wagner-Wilson, a survivor of Jonestown and Williams on the website to begin speaking, collectively, about black women’s role in Peoples Temple and its contemporary relevance. Last year, they organized a black women’s survivor panel at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. But she wondered why it had taken so long for such an event to take place in San Francisco, “to acknowledge black women’s lives, leadership and agency”:

“We know why because it is still dangerous and disreputable for black women to speak their truths. Jonestown is a crystallization of that dehumanization of that erasure and what the millennials say, ‘invisibiling.’”

The gathering conjured old wounds of the same story. Yet, the commemoration remains a gathering and show of strength, honor and resiliency. A group of four young girls perform a dance on the stage; a small marching band plays its beats outside in the Heritage Center’s lobby just moments before; peoples’ chat whispers through the lobby; others, load their plates with ribs, beans and potato salad.

District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown is also in attendance.

Brown says to the crowd:

“The fact that this actual event came together because the community wanted [it], and then they reached out to us instead of the other way around … They reached out to us and said ‘we need this, our community needs this, and we want to honor our community and the people before us.'”

Brown continues:

“So, I’m here today to say, as a city and county representative and of District 5, that we hear you, and we’re here for you — and we’re here to honor you.”

The NCLF and San Francisco Beautiful plan to dedicate a memorial at the Fillmore “Mini Park” between Turk Street and Golden Gate Avenue.

Ching Wong/SFBay
Ching Wong/SFBay
Jameel Patterson, president of New Community Leadership Foundation leads the crowd in a chant during a memorial ceremony of 40 Years After Jonestown at the Fillmore Heritage Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, November 18, 2018.

Jameel Patterson, president of the NCLF, addresses the crowd earlier outside the Fillmore Heritage Center:

“We’ve had our share of architects, heroes and villains, so this is about a legacy of a community. This is about resiliency. Even after Jim Jones, after gentrification, this neighborhood elected a mayor from its own neighborhood — London Breed.”

Patterson continues:

“We have a legacy to preserve, and we must work together to unite The City.”

Patterson implores the crowd to chant with him:

“Unite The City.”

But so is, and so has often been, the perseverance and resiliency of black Americans in San Francisco, in the U.S.

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