Jim Jones, when he is remembered at all, is most often recalled in the popular mind by the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.” Beyond that, he is mostly known by the image constructed in hindsight after his suicide and the compelled suicide of his followers in Jonestown. He is painted as religious zealot, an outsider who left America with the rest of his cult members to pursue their bizarre theology. A sui generis freak, nothing can be learned from him, in the popular telling, except to distrust religious cranks.
Harvey Milk, on the other hand, is known today as a martyr to gay rights. A progressive, lionized in the Sean Penn movie “Milk,” he has been given the kind of treatment by society’s arbiters that was once solely the province of Butler’s “Lives of the Saints.” Milk’s reputation has been smoothed out and embellished. His assassin, fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, has been shoehorned into a stereotype of a right-wing reactionary.
Simplification in opinion is the natural course of popular history, but author Daniel J. Flynn takes a second look at Jones, Milk, and White in his new book, Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days that Shook San Francisco. In doing so, Flynn gives more nuanced impressions of the men that more accurately fit their real-life activities. The extensively researched and well-cited book also gives a look at San Francisco in the 1970s and the hangover the Summer of Love left in its wake.
If the 1960s were an era of hope, peace, change, and idealism, the 1970s were the time when humanity woke up to the reality of its existence. High-flown ideas about changing our essential nature faded as the truth of earthly life—petty, venal, ruthless, and brutal—reemerged and reeducated mankind about ourselves.
San Francisco, the beating heart of ‘60s hippiedom, saw this change the most keenly. Peace and love gave way to violence with the Manson family, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weather Underground, and the Black Panthers all moving from persuasion to force to achieve their various left-wing aims. Society, it appeared, would not be remade on the basis of flower power alone.
Jones’s People’s Temple was not as openly violent as those groups, but he and his underlings practiced a level of control over the church’s membership that went well beyond moral suasion. Members were blackmailed, threatened, and made to sign away their rights. Even custody of their children was imperiled should they attempt to leave the cult.
As a “church,” the People’s Temple also deserves scare quotes. Beginning as an offshoot of Pentecostalism, Jones soon revealed that his church’s purpose was, and always had been, communism. By the time he moved the congregation to California, Jones was openly denigrating Christianity and religion generally. His message became one of socialistic gibberish: “Your conscience Socialism is God,” Flynn quotes Jones as preaching, “God is Socialism and I am Principle Socialism, and that’s what makes me God. But Socialism is more than just in a personal form. The deity of Socialism is impersonal and ever-present.”
Whatever that means, it is not Christianity. It is not even recognizable as religion, considering that Jones spoke of God as “a dumb Skygod” and “an old man that ought to be raped.” He called the Bible something fit only for use as toilet paper, and put it to that purpose after the move to Guyana. All of this should have been shocking to those members who joined the People’s Temple thinking it to be a Christian church, but such was Jones’s magnetic hold on his people that (along with his coercive methods) few deserted the socialist cult leader.
A More Conventional Avatar
Milk was the more conventional avatar of the new San Francisco. Flynn chronicles Milk’s transition from middle-class Long Island college jock, to Navy veteran and Goldwater Republican investment banker, and finally to San Francisco gay politico and small businessman. It’s more of a life journey than most people would ever undertake, but that too is a part of the upheaval of the ‘60s, with people sorting themselves out and finding their way in a rapidly changing society.
Milk immediately entered politics after arriving in San Francisco, sometimes to the consternation of other local gay leaders who had been working for their group’s cause for years. Milk was persistent, though, even neglecting his camera business to attend to his political pursuits. After several failed attempts, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978.
He climbed to the top partly due to what is now a common phenomenon: local candidates campaigning on issues over which they have no control. Setting himself up in opposition to the anti-gay campaign of Florida singer Anita Bryant, he harnessed gay people’s political anger at something that was happening 2,500 miles away.
He also had some help from an unlikely source: Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Perhaps because of their disdain for biblical tradition, the People’s Temple was seen as one of the most gay-friendly churches in the region. Jones usually sent out his cult members to beg for money on the streets of the city. Around election time, he sent them begging for votes for his favored candidates, whom he hoped would grant him political power and protection once they won. Among the candidates he favored were Milk, future mayor George Moscone, and California state assemblyman Willie Brown.
Ten Days of Violence
The ties between Jones and Milk are what allows Flynn to write this as a dual biography, but as is nearly always the case in such books, the connection between the two can be overstated. Jones’s people did assist Milk in getting elected, but he was one of several politicians who benefited from the socialist cult members’ canvassing. While Milk was full of praise for the People’s Temple in print and speech, he was not a member and only visited occasionally. The relationship appears transactional for both men.
The other fact that binds Milk to Jones is that both men died violently in November 1978. Jones’s end came first. During an investigatory visit by Rep. Leo Ryan, members of the Temple killed Ryan and others when Temple defectors attempted to leave the compound with Ryan. Jones, who had become increasingly paranoid and drug-addled since his mother’s death the year before, ordered the congregation to down the cyanide-laced drink, something they had rehearsed many times before. This time it was real, and Jones’s actions lead to the death of more than 300 people.
Back in San Francisco, some of the People’s Temple’s former friends—including Moscone—turned away in the aftermath of the horror in Jonestown, but Milk did not. He called Jones’s commune “a great experiment that didn’t work. I don’t know, maybe it did.” But troubles closer to home would soon claim his life as well. Milk’s fellow supervisor and fellow Democrat White had long harbored a grudge against White and Moscone for what he perceived as double-crossing on several votes earlier in the session.
White later resigned, then rescinded his resignation. Moscone initially agreed to re-appoint him to the vacancy, but reneged. White climbed into City Hall through a window and murdered Moscone, then sought out Milk and murdered him, too. He was later convicted, served time, and committed suicide not long after his release.
In the years since, Milk has been presented as having been murdered because he was gay, but as Flynn demonstrates through interviews and research, White’s crimes stemmed instead from personal grievances against the men he killed. White’s chief of staff, Ray Sloan, was himself gay and said White knew and that “it just didn’t make any difference to him.” The murders were instead of the ordinary sort of evil that knows no class or tribe. White was an angry man who used violence to solve his problems.
In that way, the two crimes are unrelated except by chronology. Milk’s murder is more akin to workplace violence than it is the evidence of a larger societal trend. The mass suicide at Jonestown, on the other hand, was the culmination of a series of bad choices. The People’s Temple was hailed by mainstream politicians for their socialism, and was one of many groups from that era determined to remake mankind in their image. It was not inevitable that they would fail through mass murder, but in that violence and coercion had been a part of their worldview from the start, it is also not surprising.
Echoes in California Today
The echoes of the societal decay of the 1970s are still in evidence in California politics today. Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a political enemy of Milk’s when they served together on the Board of Supervisors—succeeded Moscone as mayor after his murder and is in the U.S. Senate today. Willie Brown, another friend of the People’s Temple, sloughed off that association and became mayor himself after having served as speaker of the California Assembly. Kamala Harris, Brown’s girlfriend in the 1990s, occupies California’s other U.S. Senate seat. Ryan’s aide, Jackie Speier, survived the Jonestown gunfire that killed her boss and ran for office soon after; she currently sits in the U.S. House of Representatives.
San Francisco has never truly recovered from the problems of those times. The hippies who made it moved out, and those who remained saw their movement turn malignant in groups like Jones’s. The city became richer through the booming Silicon Valley economy, but the politics never changed.
Rich and poor alike in San Francisco preach the politics of warmed-over socialism. The only difference now is that the rich can afford to protect themselves from its realities. The rest of the city, especially its dwindling middle class, find themselves in the semi-feudal culture their ideology once sought to overthrow.
Flynn’s book captures the beginning that led to these conditions. Late-stage hippiedom and the Silicon feudalism that followed share a desire to remake man’s essential nature. Unmoored from God and from tradition, they seek earthly salvation in the works of humanity but never in a system that values individual human lives. The tempest that started spinning in the ‘60s is still a whirlwind 50 years on.