Sikivu Hutchinson, acclaimed author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics & Values Wars and Godless Americana: Race & Religious Rebels, examined the Jonestown Massacre through the lenses of race, religiosity, white supremacy and patriarchy and the result is a fascinating read.
On November 19, 1978, charismatic and psychotic cult leader Jim Jones, orchestrated the largest mass suicide in modern history. After drinking a fatal cocktail of punch and cyanide, 918 people lay dead. What is not widely discussed, as Hutchinson notes, is that a disproportionate number of the deceased were Black women.
“About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino and Native American,” writes Hutchinson. “The majority of its black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white. As per the cultural cliché, black women like [sole Jonestown survivor Hyacinth] Thrash were “the backbone” of Peoples Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church.”
Peoples Temple was established by Jones in Indiana, eventually spreading its reach to San Francisco, before ultimately uprooting to Guyana to avoid government persecution for its communist views. Jones represented the White messiah for many of these women, who had been raised in Pentecostal churches where White Jesus reigned supreme.
Why is it that Black women fall prey to organized religion steeped in racism, patriarchy and White supremacy? Why is it that a religion admittedly used to psychologically enslave the minds of Black bodies already in bondage during the slave trade is still positioned as a central tenet of Black America?
Hutchinson discusses the phenomenon more in her article Why Did So Many Black Women Die? Jonestown at 35:
According to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Postpoll, black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation. Only 2% said that being religious was not important to them at all (compared to 15% of white men), while 74% said that it was extremely important. Numerous surveys have touted the decline of American religiosity within the past decade and yet, in an era of black economic depression, the need to be devout or churched-up has not diminished for most African-American women, despite the often patriarchal, heterosexist orientation of the Black Church.
The widening wealth gap between blacks, whites and Latinos, coupled with the downward mobility of the black middle class, only amplifies the role of religion in black life. Because charismatic faith movements thrive in the presence of socioeconomic and political turbulence black religiosity is flourishing (as the breakout popularity of the new reality show Preachers of L.A. attests).
Peoples Temple rose to prominence in San Francisco during the turbulence of the post-civil rights, post-Black Power, post-Vietnam War era. A self-proclaimed Marxist who fetishized black liberation struggle, Jim Jones actively courted the support and approval of the Bay Area liberal political establishment. He skillfully mined the language of social justice, racial equality and anti-sexism in an era in which disillusion with the possibility of freedom from institutional oppression ran high.
Read more of Hutchinson’s article here.
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