The case of Yale and Calvin
San Francisco's Democratic government propped up the infamous cult leader Jim Jones.
Of all the slavery reparations proposals that have recently come out of California, San Francisco’s is the most generous. Not only does it promise each black person $5 million, the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee recommended a array of other perks, like cancelling all black-held debt and instituting a yearly payment of $97,000 for 250 years—in addition to the $5 million lump sum payout—to each qualified resident.
Some critics of the proposal have pointed out that California entered the Union as a free state, and black people don’t have a very long history in San Francisco. Most arrived in the city after the U.S. entry in World War II, settling in the Fillmore District. The Fillmore’s residents were originally Jewish and Japanese, but as Japanese Americans were rounded up in interment camps, real estate stood empty and newly-arrived African Americans moved in.
However, there are still good reasons for reparations, it turns out. One of the chief injustices listed in the Reparations Committee’s draft proposal was an urban redevelopment project launched in 1953 that lasted for two decades, displacing up to 15,000 Fillmore residents. “Slum clearance” of this sort was the type of crime against humanity perpetrated at the time by urban planners around America. Witnessing one’s neighborhood being bulldozed is hardly a pleasant experience, but we all can agree that it’s not in the same league as spending a world war in a manhole in Warsaw—the type of atrocity that historically warranted reparations.
Has San Francisco harmed African Americans, then? Well, maybe. But in the history of the city, the greatest systemic calamity perpetrated against black people—which has all but vanished from memory—was Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, which embedded itself within and empowered the San Francisco Democratic political machine.
James Jones was a Communist midwesterner who, in the fifties, built a cult following thousands strong, most of them black, by staging faux healings and modeling racial reconciliation. His Peoples Temple fused Marxism with Christian themes, promising heaven on Earth. Jones was schooled in Christianity but rejected what he taught his followers was the Sky God. By the late sixties, the charismatic Reverend, pumped up with stimulants and sedatives, was talking of himself as Christ the Revolution and at the end of his life commended the USSR for having the best form of government.
In 1965, Jones moved his assembly from Indiana to Redwood Valley, California. In what in retrospect looks like a dry run, he quickly infiltrated the local government. From there, he started branching out to Los Angeles and San Francisco. By 1970, he was delivering weekly services in San Francisco and two years later, leased a synagogue in the Fillmore that was abandoned once the Jewish residents of the area fled crime and redevelopment. The sanctuary that once welcomed Holocaust survivors was transformed into a seat of madness and heresy.
Jones wooed local politicos with gifts and favors. The future mayor—and the future cohabiting partner and professional mentor of Vice President Kamala Harris—Willie Brown was among the first to realize the usefulness of the cult in community organization. The Peoples Temple could be counted on to provide warm bodies to hold signs at demonstrations and to knock on doors in the run up to elections.
In a town where most of the Democratic establishment embraced Jones, with rare exceptions like the straight-laced Dianne Feinstein who never cared much for the Reverend, Brown was one of his strongest backers. Another was city supervisor Harvey Milk. Daniel J. Flynn explained in Cult City how Milk, whose greatest claim to fame is being murdered alongside Mayor George Moscone by a disgruntled rival, supported Jones even after the Peoples Temple became a liability. Flynn makes the case that Milk, who was raised Jewish, genuinely liked worshiping with the cult, which welcomed all regardless of race and sexual orientation, and had an affinity for Jones’s cult of personality.
The Peoples Temple deserves credit for the very existence of the San Francisco political machine. In 1975, Jones fixed the election for Moscone and other candidates. He bused in his out-of-town followers who went from precinct to precinct voting multiple times and intimidating election officials. After the election, Jones placed his lawyers in the District Attorney office who, once the revelations of Peoples Temple abuses began to surface, made sure to cover up for him—just as his moles did in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Peoples Temple weaved its tentacles through local power structures, making sure politicians knew who made them. In Season of The Witch, San Francisco historian David Talbot described how Jones supplied the serial cheater Moscone with women. Jones then used his influence within the city to score meetings with Vice President Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
While expanding his influence to federal officials, Jones accumulated wealth by seizing his followers’ income and real property and collecting foster children, along with the government money attached to them. It is astounding and largely forgotten that Moscone appointed Jim Jones as the head of the San Francisco Housing Authority, effectively placing government assets in the hands of the power-hungry conman.
If Jones’s charisma failed to keep the followers in line, an army of enforcers could deliver physical punishment. That kept many escapees from contacting the press or authorities. Again, most of those kept obedient to the Reverend and outside the reaches of the law were black.
Although he always made sure to associate himself with the Civil Rights struggle and adopted children of all races, Jones exploited poor blacks. Talbot notes:
Jones always maintained a racial hierarchy within the organization. While church membership was primarily black, the thirty-seven-member planning commission, as Jones called the 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.”
Once the word about abuses within the cult got out and Jones found himself in legal hot water, he started trafficking his followers to Guyana, sometimes snatching children away from parents. The commune, to which the master himself relocated in 1977, became known as Jonestown. There, black people worked in the field under the scorching sun while whites were assigned office jobs. The man who took advantage of the American racial strife by staging pseudo-religious race integrated worship ended up recreating plantation slavery.
In 1978, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown with several members of the press on a fact-finding mission. The colony residents complained of mistreatment, and Ryan picked up 15 of them who wanted to leave. Jones’s personal guard caught up with the delegation at an airstrip and murdered five of them, including Ryan.
Because his guards failed to kill the entire party, Jones felt he was at the end of his rope. Having repeatedly rehearsed mass suicide in the name of salvation in all-night harangue sessions, Jones assembled his throng and ordered them to take poison—starting with the compound’s many children. Once the parents had murdered their own children, Jones understood that in their despair they would comply with the rest of his orders. Finally, Jones shot himself. More than 900 residents of Jonestown, most of them black San Franciscans, died in the mass murder-suicide. Their bodies were brought back to the United States and given a final rest in Oakland.
Locally, there was never any serious attempt to reconcile the legacy of Peoples Temple. There is no monument to the victims in San Francisco, no acknowledgement that the city and the state leadership is mired in its connection to America’s most notorious murderous cult. Jones’s former associate and greatest booster Harvey Milk got a Hollywood biopic and is virtually a secular saint.
The Jonestown incident was immediately swept under the rug and Jones dismissed as a right wing Christian nutter from Indiana. But San Francisco was always full of residents born elsewhere and has been teeming with wacky cults for about 125 years. Not all of them got to party with the city elites, but the Marxist Jones did. If the African American Reparations Advisory Committee is interested in justice, it should look not at evictions from 70 years ago but at a Democratic city government that abided and abetted human trafficking and murder within living memory.
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