Why Angela Davis Should Remember the Jonestown Massacre

, Malcolm A. Kline, 5 Comments

Not that anyone should forget but the revolutionary radical turned credentialed academic has a special reason to remember the mass suicide/homicide that occurred 40 years ago in the country of Guyana on November 18, 1978.

Back then, messianic murderer Jim Jones ordered hundreds of his People’s Temple congregants to down cyanide flavored with flavor aid. Although portrayed as a religious fanatic, Jones actually openly despised the religion he allegedly represented.

His left-wing leanings won him many supporters in the United States including Davis, Jane Fonda and openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. Milk, murdered within two weeks of the Guyana massacre, is now as lionized as Jones is loathed.

Dan Flynn, former executive director of Accuracy in Academia, tells the story of the twin tragedies in his new book, Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco. Flynn, as ever a meticulous researcher, draws on archival research, primary documents and interviews with survivors to relate the tale of Jones, a fixture in San Francisco before he moved his flock south of the border, and Milk, who counted upon “the reverend” for political support vital to his career.

“The supposed religious fanatics of Jonestown had hosted a Soviet delegation, taught Russian to residents in preparation for a mass pilgrimage to the place Jim Jones dubbed the group’s ‘spiritual motherland,’ and willed millions of dollars to the Soviet Union,” Flynn writes. “Peoples Temple goons confiscated Bibles reaching Jonestown from the United States.”

“Jonestown celebrated December 25 as Revolution Day. They sang songs about Jim rather than Jesus. Jones openly denounced the “stupid Skygod.’ When the jungle community ran out of toilet paper, Jones distributed Bibles for bathroom use—a practice hitherto unknown among fundamentalist Christians.”

Incidentally, Davis did not have to alter her views one iota to make the transition from radical chic to the faculty lounge and her support of the People’s Temple pastor did not have to be a one-off. “Angela Davis, who fed Jonestown paranoia by telling residents of ‘a very profound conspiracy’ against Peoples Temple, won appointment in the 1990s to the University of California’s prestigious Presidential Chair,” Flynn writes.

Along with Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and psychologist and Civil Rights activists Carlton Goodlett, Davis spoke by phone to the Jonestown compound and was broadcast over the loudspeaker to the residents there. Here is what she said:

“I know you are in a very difficult situation right now and there is a conspiracy, a very profound conspiracy designed to destroy the contributions which you have made to our struggle. And this is why I must tell you that we feel we are under attack as well. When you are attacked, it is because of your progressive stand, and we feel that it is directly an attack against us as well. Therefore, more of us need to know that we will be carrying on this idea, then we will do everything in our power to ensure your safety and your ability to keep on struggling.”

What many in the compound, even progressives, were struggling to do at that moment was escape–a pursuit in which most were, tragically, unsuccessful.

Davis still makes the rounds of college campuses. In fact, she’s booked through April of 2019. In these appearances, she is usually tossed softball questions. It would be nice if someone asked her if she regrets her support of Jones and the People’s Temple. Jane Fonda’s memory should be jogged on this as well. She’s been making no shortage of media appearances doing interviews lately.

Cult City is published by ISI Books, a division of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.