On May 29, 2011 a memorial was unveiled at Evergreen Cemetery in East Oakland. Four stone panels with the names of 918 people that died in Guyana on November 18, 1978 were listed on the stones in alphabetical order.
The stones marked the final resting place of 400 unclaimed bodies from the cult mass murder/suicide known simply as "Jonestown."
Jonestown was a cult compound created and controlled by the notorious cult leader Jim Jones. Jones led the "People's Temple," a church that once thrived in San Francisco. But after increasingly intense media scrutiny focused on the outrageous and often brutal behavior of Jim Jones, the preacher decided to leave the San Francisco Bay Area. He then led a core remnant of his followers to British Guyana in South America, where he promised to build a "utopia," which instead was a cult nightmare.
Jones dictated the deaths of almost one thousand of his followers, which included more than 200 children. 907 cult members drank or were forced to drink cyanide mixed with fruit punch served from large tubs. "Drinking the Kool-Aid" would become a figure of speech used to describe people devoid of critical thinking and under undue influence. United States Congressman Leo Ryan (D-San Mateo) and others traveling with him to visit Jonestown were also murdered. All told the death toll was 918. Until the terrorist attack on September 11th 2001, Jonestown was the largest loss of life of American civilians in a single day, outside of a natural disaster.
The adopted son of the cult leader Jim Jones Jr. helped to raise funds for the stone memorial at Evergreen Cemetery. He admitted that his father was responsible for a "horrific" tragedy and that his leadership "went terribly wrong." But Jones Jr. and others who helped raise the money to pay for the memorial made sure that the name of Jim Jones was inscribed along with the names of his victims.
Many survivors and the families of those killed at Jonestown felt the inclusion of the cult leader's name on the memorial was outrageous.
Jones body is not buried at the grave site. But Jim Jones Jr. explained, "At the end of the day, he is still my father. I can't change that." And he wanted his father's name to be placed on the memorial.
Ronald Haulman, executive director of Evergreen Cemetery explained that Evergreen agreed in 1978 to bury 400 unclaimed bodies from Jonestown. Haulman reportedly "emphasized that the cemetery is not interested in eulogizing someone who committed these heinous crimes" but allowed the inclusion of Jim Jones on the memorial stones and subsequently refused to take his name down.
Los Angeles Pastor Jynona Norwood lost 27 family members at Jonestown and she was outraged. At Norwood's website www.Jonestown.org and through public statements the pastor made it clear exactly why she was so deeply offended.
"Injustice has been done in the annals of history. Revisionists have made a stance against truth and righteousness and the shedding of innocent blood caused by their leader, Jim Jones, by memorializing his work as noble and 'good,'" she stated at her site. Norwood also said, "Who among us would sit quietly while a memorial was built to honor Adolph [sic] Hitler whose demonic acts killed so many innocent people during the Holocaust? In the same manner, how can we sit quietly while another madman is being honored in one of the most shameful massacres of our people in recent history?"
Congresswoman Laura Richardson (D-Los Angeles) penned a letter last year in support of Norwood, arguing that "immortalizing" Jones was an "insult to the memories of those deceased."
On the 35th anniversary of Jonestown two separate gatherings took place at Evergreen Cemetery. One led by Jynona Norwood, and another attended by Jim Jones Jr. and largely coordinated by an organization known as the "Jonestown Institute," led by Fielding McGehee and his wife Rebecca Moore. Moore is a professor of religious studies at San Diego State and she lost two sisters and a nephew at Jonestown. Moore and her husband seem to have become cult apologists attempting to somehow put a positive spin on a cult group that is historically remembered for mass murder.
Some critics of Pastor Norwood have reportedly described her annual gatherings of survivors and affected families as "too religious and too focused on the evil of Jim Jones." McGehee and his wife objected to Norwood reminding people of the dangers of destructive cults and citing Jonestown as a prime example.
Moore told the East Bay Express, "The agenda [of Norwood's service] has been to focus on Jim Jones and the dangers of cults." She explained, "I really don't want to use their deaths as the platform for discussing any other issues."
Note: This news summary was largely based upon the report "The Long Division of Jonestown Survivors" written by Sam Levin and published by the East Bay Express November 13, 2013.
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