"People Followed Him to Hell" The Story of Jim Jones and San Francisco
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“Season of the Witch,” the new book by Salon founder David Talbot, tells the story of the wild and bloody birth of “San Francisco values.” The following excerpt recounts one of the darker dramas before the ultimate triumph of those values. Click here to buy a copy of the book.
Jim Jones, the strange and charismatic leader of Peoples Temple, proved a master at politically wiring San Francisco in the mid-1970s. The driven preacher had begun his climb up the political pyramid by planting roots in the Fillmore district, the city’s devastated black neighborhood. Jones moved into the Fillmore at its most vulnerable moment. Urban renewal czar Justin Herman – the Robert Moses of San Francisco — had “literally destroyed the neighborhood,” observed community activist Hannibal Williams, “[and] people were desperate for solutions, something to follow. Jim Jones was another solution. He had a charismatic personality that won the hearts and souls of people. And people followed him to hell. That’s where Jim Jones went. That’s where he took the people who followed him.”
Jones’s flock, ignored and scorned by society, was electrified by the preacher’s vision of a new Eden. Everybody was exalted in his services, even the lowliest recovering drunks and addicts. “He made us feel special, like something bigger than ourselves,” said one temple member. “Total equality, no rich or poor, no races,” said another. “We were alive in those services,” testified one more. “They had life, soul power.”
Jones — an oddball and renegade his entire life, someone who never felt at home in his own skin — had found his identity by taking on a black persona. He saw himself following in the footsteps of Malcolm and Martin, leading “his” people out of bondage and into the promised land.
In reality, Jones maintained a racial hierarchy within the organization. While church membership was primarily black, the 37-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. “When people talk about my father manipulating black people, that’s true,” said Jim Jones Jr., the preacher’s black adopted son. “It was politically advantageous for him to give me his name.”
There was something exhibitionistic about the way that Jones and his wife treated their black son. “I was the chosen one,” he said. “I was more loved in my family than the other kids, even their biological son, Stephan. I remember Mom wiping charcoal off a dirty pot one day and rubbing it all over her face — to show that we were all black.”
Jones soon learned that his control over a well-organized, mixed-race army of some 8,000 dedicated followers gave him major stature with San Francisco’s liberal elite. Redevelopment had bulldozed the Fillmore’s political power into the ground. But now this strange white man with the hipster shades, Indian-black hair, and cadences of a black Bible-thumper seemed to be erecting a new political power line into the rubble-strewn, crime-ridden no-man’s-land. 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 — run by congressional powerhouse Phil Burton — quickly identified the Peoples Temple juggernaut as a potentially game-changing ally in its long battle to take over city hall.
It was Burton ally Willie Brown – a rising force in California’s state capital — who first recognized that Jones’s organization could play a pivotal role in his friend George Moscone’s run for mayor. Moscone, a charming and handsome state legislator, had electrified San Francisco progressives with his campaign for city hall. A champion of gays, women, minorities, tenants and organized labor, Moscone was locked in a tight race with a pack of opponents led by conservative realtor John Barbagelata, whose campaign evoked a nostalgia for an older San Francisco, when it was ruled by traditional Catholic values. A meeting was set up between Jones and Moscone in the office of Don Bradley, the candidate’s veteran campaign manager. Bradley was initially cautious. “I was a little leery we were getting into something like the Moonies,” he later recalled. But after he looked into the temple’s campaign history and saw how effective it was in delivering victories, Bradley enthusiastically embraced Jones’s volunteer army. Nearly 200 temple members showed up at Moscone headquarters, fanning out to campaign in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, and helping the candidate finish first in the November 1975 election.