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Jim Jones & Harvey Milk: The Secret History

Cult City reveals how 1970s San Francisco led to Jonestown

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of two landmark events of American popular culture: the assassination of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk, and the mass suicide of 900 members of the Peoples Temple cult.

If you remember anything about the mass suicide, it’s probably that cult leader Jim Jones was a fundamentalist Christian demon whose Bible-thumping berated brainwashed followers into drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

Harvey Milk, by contrast, is a folk hero. The San Francisco supervisor became a gay-rights saint because he was martyred by a right-wing fanatic.

That’s the received history in both cases. But according to author Daniel Flynn, it’s scarcely truth at all, but rather propaganda. And the way history remembers these men and the time and place that made them offers a dire warning to us today.

Flynn’s new book Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI Books) is a bold, at times shocking work of revisionist history that challenges what we think we know about both men and the murderous events that brought them to national prominence.

Flynn reveals that Jones was in fact a socialist fanatic who, far from the theological and cultural fringes, was a key player in left-wing San Francisco politics. Flynn also shows that Milk was an opportunist and a showboater who was willing to use extremist rhetoric — and in one case, indulge in outing — to advance his political career. His assassin was not a homicidal homophobe, but a hotheaded former political ally furious over Milk’s political betrayal.

And, most bizarrely of all, Milk and Jones were friends and allies. That was the kind of place San Francisco was in the 1970s, says Flynn, who agreed to do an interview with me by e-mail:

RD: I was shocked to discover that Jim Jones and Harvey Milk were allies in the politics of 1970s San Francisco. Before we get into the details of that alliance, what does the fact that it existed have to do with the title of your book, Cult City?

DANIEL FLYNN: San Francisco suffered the hangover after the high.

Following the day-glo 1960s exemplified by the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, and Golden Gate Park’s Human Be-In, San Francisco became a very dark place. The Zodiac Killer taunting the cops, the Zebra Murders racially targeting white people, the terrorism of the New World Liberation Front leading to a bomb placed on Dianne Feinstein’s windowsill, among other frightening acts. The Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and so much else made a beautiful city ugly. Political crazies and just plain crazies intermingled with little to differentiate the two.

This worked as the ideal milieu for Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. It fit in to its time and place, even if it stands out to us forty years later.

The Temple’s politicized theology really grabbed Harvey Milk, a man heretofore largely indifferent to faith. Jim Jones promoted gay rights, which appealed to Harvey Milk. Beyond this, he provided his campaigns “volunteers,” a printing press, and publicity through his widely distributed newspaper. When Milk organized a fair on Castro Street, Peoples Temple provided professional-level entertainers. When his lover committed suicide, Temple members sent dozens of condolence letters inviting Milk to visit or even live in Jonestown.

Milk clearly found his association with Jim Jones exhilarating. “It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach[ed] today,” he wrote Jim Jones after one Temple service. “I was sorry that I had to leave after 4 short hours …. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.”

In exchange for all that, Milk provided legitimacy to Jim Jones. He spoke at Peoples Temple. He praised it in his column in the Bay Area Reporter. He lobbied on Jones’s behalf to President Jimmy Carter, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano, Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, and other powerful figures. As Cult City shows, this proved disastrous for many people.

So many local leaders enthusiastically vouching for Jim Jones made it easier for people in positions of responsibility far away to dismiss the charges against him as fantastical. Before the poor drank Jim Jones’s Kool Aid in South America, the powerful did in San Francisco.

I was a kid when the Jonestown mass suicide took place, and always assumed that Jim Jones was some kind of fundamentalist Christian. In fact, he and his Peoples Temple were very much the opposite. What were they really about? 

I had the same experience. I write about it briefly in the acknowledgments. Perhaps we both thought that because media initially reported this Bible-thumping Jim Jones as fact, and that first draft of history stuck.

The New York Times, for instance, described Jones’s preaching as “fundamentalist Christianity” immediately after the tragedy. They knew better. A.M. Rosenthal, the managing editor of the paper, several years earlier ridiculed the first expose on the Temple by a religion writer in the San Francisco Examiner, explaining to a Temple member: “We do expect to be attacked by people like Lester Kinsolving and others who have political axes to grind.”

In reality, Peoples Temple used the trappings of Pentecostal Christianity to win over large numbers of people to socialism. Jim Jones ridiculed the Bible, stomped on it in front of his flock, and instructed his followers to use it as toilet paper when their supply of the luxury ran out in Jonestown. The rest that Temple survivors told me about this really dropped my jaw.

The Nation stood as one of the few outlets to accurately report on Peoples Temple’s outlook in the aftermath of the tragedy. “The temple was as much a left-wing political crusade as a church,” the weekly noted. “In the course of the 1970s, its social program grew steadily more disaffected from what Jim Jones came to regard as a ‘Fascist America’ and drifted rapidly toward outspoken Communist sympathies.”

In members occasionally donning red uniforms, frequently singing “The Internationale,” and teaching Russian to Jonestown inhabitants, Peoples Temple advertised its political creed. Jones even politicized the group’s grisly coda, calling it “revolutionary suicide” as though the nihilistic act contained some higher ideological purpose. Who Jones borrowed this “revolutionary suicide” concept from, and how it slowly developed within the Temple, may surprise a lot of readers.

The received story about Harvey Milk is that he is a secular saint. In fact, as you show, he was sexually involved with underage boys, and he was willing to use slanderous extreme rhetoric against his opponents, even other gay people. Why have these facts been shoved down the memory hole?

When a supporter discovered that Milk had fabricated a tale of a dishonorable discharge from the Navy—only in San Francisco would a politician lie about his honorable service to enhance credibility—Milk responded, “Symbols. Symbols. Symbols.”

In death, Milk the man became Milk the myth—a human symbol of something greater than himself. Men are complicated. Myths? Not so much. The need to be neat and pure.

Gays understandably tried to make sense of a senseless act. Rather than a petty man seeking murderous redress for a petty grievance, the assassination of Harvey Milk became an act of homophobia and its victim a martyr of the gay rights movement.

Part of this mythology involves creating a caricature of Dan White and his motives. What I discovered about Milk’s assassin from interviewing people close to him really floored me. I will leave all that for the book. The other part of the equation of the mythologizing involves transforming Harvey Milk, who authored one single city ordinance—sensibly ordering dog owners to clean up the mess their pets leave—in his 11 months in office into a colossal figure (and a secular saint).

Saints require saintliness. Harvey Milk acted as a great friend, demonstrated a terrific sense of humor, exhibited an amazing penchant for reinvention, and tenaciously served the causes in which he believed. He was not a saint.

His biggest critics are not right wingers (John Briggs [a retired California politician best known for an anti-gay bill — RD] clearly conveyed to me in our conversation how much he enjoyed Milk’s company) but gay men, several of whom spoke to me for this book. Other gay men jealously guard Milk’s legacy. One refused to answer my questions but instead began asking me questions about my book. There’s a bowdlerized quality to books on Harvey Milk. I hope this book helps to change that. Affirmative action history with varying standards for people according to identity politics isn’t history. It’s propaganda. My aim is not to make Milk into a monster, but a man. Men are flawed. People who choose to worship a man find this hard to accept.

Jim Jones has been largely forgotten today, but I think it matters that people today, if they think of him at all, remember him as a lone cult crazy, like a predecessor of David Koresh or Warren Jeffs. In fact, before he exiled himself and his congregation to Guyana, he was a mainstream left-wing figure of his time and place. Why has our historical memory been falsified?

Jim Jones held private meetings with Jimmy Carter’s running mate Walter Mondale and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, during the 1976 presidential campaign. San Francisco Mayor George Moscone appointed him chairman of the city’s Housing Commission Authority, effectively making him the city’s largest landlord (scary when thinking of how he treated his tenants in Guyana). Jane Fonda, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and others heaped praise upon him. Willie Brown compared him to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

Jones was very much in with the in crowd. Then he orchestrated the murders of more than 900 people. At this point, the evangelical atheist and committed Communist morphed into a “power-hungry fascist” in the words of Walter Cronkite, and his followers became “religious zealots” in the words of the Associated Press.

The reasons for this Jedi Mind Trick appear pretty obvious. Many powerful politicians killed investigations of Peoples Temple. Many famous journalists, including San Francisco Chronicle mainstay Herb Caen, acted as boosters for Jim Jones. Many had blood on their hands. Beyond this, Jones discredited the politicians who aided and abetted him and the political causes they valued. So, they turned him into something he was not.

When one thinks of weak but frequent attempts to link mass murderers to political figures without any evidence—one thinks of the lame gambit to tie Tucson mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner to Sara Palin and the Tea Party—the disassociation of Jim Jones from the very real friendships and alliances he forged with San Francisco Democratic elies astounds. He was close to Supervisor Harvey Milk, future San Francisco mayors Willie Brown and Art Agnos, and California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally, who actually made a pilgrimage to Jonestown and colored himself impressed.

On the other hand, the fact that so many journalists had skin in the game helps explain why, after providing laudatory coverage of Jones during his life, they danced around the subject of his famous friends and fashionable causes after his death. Journalists had compromised themselves.

You say in your conclusion that “the lessons of Jonestown remain unlearned”? Explain.

People lied. People died.

People died. People lied.

Jim Jones could not have killed 918 people without politicians, journalists, and activists running interference for him. They mistook ideology for ethics, a mistake common to fanatics of all stripes. Rather than learn from this mistake, they compounded it by portraying Jones posthumously as someone he was not to protect their ideology, shield their political skullduggery, and absolve themselves from the journalistic sin of performing PR instead of real reporting.

Cult City is a case study in the worst that can happen when powerful people look away from evil because the evildoer shares their politics. This repeats itself in the Jonestown post mortem, which witnesses a massive attempt to suppress the whole point of Peoples Temple: to promote left-wing politics. Because the truth discredits famous people and favored causes, the cable-TV documentaries and newspaper retrospectives that surely commemorate the 40th anniversary of the tragedy next month go into contortions to maneuver around the truth.

Jim Jones believed in making heaven on earth. Like so many others devoted to that proposition, he ended up making hell on earth. Jonestown, and the politicians who helped make it happen, is a truly amazing story—but an untold one. I think curious people who want to know the truth of what happened in this stranger-than-fiction tale will want to read my book.

The book is ‘Cult City: Harvey Milk, Jim Jones, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco’ (ISI Books), by Daniel Flynn.



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