Prior to September 11, 2001, the day that resulted in the largest single-day loss of American civilian life in the history of our country was the Jonestown massacre, a tragedy that involved the deaths of nearly 1000 Americana in the obscure location of Jonestown, Guyana on November of 1978. 2013 marks the thirty-fifth year since that catastrophe.
In the spring of 2013, the Griot Institute for Africana Studies explored the Jonestown narrative and examined the critical engagements with the fundamental questions of religion, race, nationality, power, civil rights, sexuality, poverty, aspiration, and identity it raises. We sought to understand the ways in which those complexities are related to many contemporary social and geo-political dilemmas. The deaths at Jonestown included the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan, the only US Congressperson to be killed in US history while serving in the line of duty. The Peoples Temple and its leader, Jim Jones, were intimately associated with and, at least early in the history of the organization, endorsed by some of the leading social and political figures of the 1970s, including being praised and supported by Rosalyn Carter, George Moscone, Angela Davis, and Harvey Milk.
In spite of the significance of the Jonestown massacre, it is now most often remembered by the phrase "drinking the kool-aid." The Griot Jonestown Reconsidered lecture/discussion series examined the Jonestown narratives through campus visits with the people who lived the experience as well as the scholars and artists who have contributed to the understanding of the Jonestown massacre.
Fielding M. McGehee III is the chief historical researcher for the web's most scholarly and diverse resource on Peoples Temple, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. He edits the site's annual journal, the jonestown report, which follows ongoing scholarly research and artistic interpretations of Peoples Temple; offers a forum for Jonestown survivors, relatives and Temple apostates; and publishes original articles by students and writers. He is the primary transcriber and contextual analyst in an ongoing project to put 750 audiotapes from Jonestown on the public record. He has also participated in many book-length projects on Jonestown and Peoples Temple, including the upcoming Stories from Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski.
Together with his wife Rebecca Moore, Fielding became involved with Peoples Temple on November 19, 1978, the day after Rebecca's two sisters and their nephew died along with 915 others in Guyana. In the intervening years, Fielding had joined with other survivors and relatives in an effort to humanize the people of Jonestown, to document the history of the movement and the government's response to it, and to articulate the lessons that the tragedy can teach the U.S. In 2011, he joined with two Jonestown survivors to create, underwrite, and dedicate a permanent memorial to the 918 people who died that day; the memorial is located at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, Cemetery.
Rebecca Moore is distinguished professor of religious studies at San Diego State University. She has a Ph.D. in religious studies from Marquette University (1996), where her specialty was Jewish and Christian dialogue. She has written and published on medieval Christian theologians and their debt to Jewish biblical commentary. She is author of Voices of Christianity: A Global Introduction (2005), and co-author of A Portable God: The Origin of Judaism and Christianity, with Risa Levitt Kohn (2007).
Dr. Moore also specializes in American religions, focusing on new religious movements. Her most recent book is Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (2009). She co-manages the website Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. She is director of San Diego State University's Metropolitan Area Pluralism Study (MAPS) which locates, charts and digitally publishes a visual and descriptive guide to the religious diversity that exists in the San Diego-Tijuana border region.
Produced for the PBS series American Experience, Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples' Temple, written by his frequent collaborator Marcia Smith, examines the infamous religious cult formed by Jim Jones and the events that led to the group's horrifying mass suicide in 1978. The film traces Jones' history from his unhappy childhood in rural Indiana. Witnesses describe a strange, charismatic young man who nursed a seemingly sincere desire for social justice, but also reputedly murdered small animals as a child.
Stanley Nelson, a 2002 MacArthur "Genius" Fellow, is executive producer of Firelight Films. His recent film, Freedom Riders, is the winner of three Primetime Emmy Awards. Over the last ten years, Nelson has garnered multiple industry awards for his films: Jesse Owens, Freedom Riders, Wounded Knee, A Place of Our Own, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, and The Murder of Emmett Till. During this period, he also produced and directed Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice and Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple, which was shortlisted for the Academy Awards. Several of his films have shown at the Sundance Film Festival. He is currently in production on two films on key movements during the civil rights era - the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign and the Black Panther Party.
Leigh Fondakowski was the Head Writer of The Laramie Project and has been a member of Tectonic Theatre Project since 1995. She is an Emmy nominated co-screenwriter for the adaptation of The Laramie Project for HBO, and a co-writer of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Her play, The People's Temple, has been performed under her direction at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Theater Company and The Guthrie Theater, and received the Glickman Award for Best New Play in the Bay Area in 2005. Another original play, I Think I Like Girls, premiered at Encore Theater in San Francisco under her direction and was voted one of the top 10 plays of 2002 by The Advocate. Leigh is a 2007 recipient of the NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights, a 2009 Macdowell Colony Fellow, and a 2010 Imagine Fund fellow and guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota.
She has two current projects: SPILL, a play and art installation (co-created with Reeva Wortel) about the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil disaster, and Casa Cushman, a new play about the 19th-century American actress Charlotte Cushman. Her first work of creative non-fiction, Stories from Jonestown, will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in early 2013.
Jordan became a member of the Peoples Temple at age 12 when she moved to Redwood Valley with her older sister Diane. During her time in the temple she became a part of the inner workings of the organization and was sent to Guyana when she was 20.
She fortuitously missed being among those who died by leaving Jonestown the day before to attend to duties in the capitol. She has contributed her writing to yearly editions of the Jonestown report. Today, Jordan lives in Calfornia and has an integrative mentoring practice, Cosmology of You™, in Berkeley.
Tim Carter was a resident of Jonestown but managed to vacate with his brother and close friend on that final day in 1978. He is one of four eye witnesses to the tragedy that happened that day. He lost his wife and 15 month old son in Jonestown, along with his sister, niece, nephew, brother -in-law, and sister-in-law. He spends his time reflecting on the events of Jonestown and is the author of several articles on the topic, including "Murder or Suicide: What I Saw."
Carter has also contributed to many film documentaries about Jonestown such as "Jonestown: The Life and Death Of Peoples Temple," the PBS "American Experience" special which was a top five finalist for an Academy Award. He has also appeared in over a dozen TV documentaries on Jonestown including a documentary appearing on the History Channel in March 2013. Carter is a Vietnam Vet and resides in the Pacific Northwest. He was a speaker at the National Forensic Psychiatric convention in 2007 and has been a guest speaker at several universities and high schools.
A journalist by trade. Scheeres has written for Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, The Guardian, and many other publications. Her first book, Jesus Land - a memoir about growing up in a strict Christian environment with an adopted black brother - was a New York Times and London Times bestseller. Scheeres is the author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of the People's Temple.
The only biological child of Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. Stephan Jones escaped the Jonestown events along with members of a People's Temple basketball team, who were in Georgetown on that day. Jones lost most of his family and community that day. He was 18 at the time.
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