“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This quote is from a sign that hung in the pavilion of Jonestown, Guyana. It somehow seems prophetic than many in San Francisco, now in 2014, do not remember or know about the tragic events of 1978. Perhaps for many, it is something they want to forget. Some who hear about it now, simply cannot believe it to be true, as if the brain could not fully understand the senseless waste that occurred in a far off South American jungle.
It was the events of November 18, 1978, that brought me to a cemetery near Mills College in East Oakland. It was 36 years ago, this month, that this tragedy rocked San Francisco, the Bay Area, and the world. It was at Evergreen Cemetery that 412 unclaimed victims were buried. And I had come to pay my respects. In 2011, four plaques were placed here, listing all of the dead. Controversially, included among the dead is that of the mastermind and leader of the Peoples Temple: Jim Jones.
Cemeteries are here for the sole purpose that we do not forget the past; Those who peopled it and those who shaped it. As I look over the 909 names engraved in stone I wonder what we have learned from Jonestown and what we have vowed never to repeat again. The answer is varied to the many people who ask the question but to me the lesson is simple: never stop questioning and never stop learning.
And as we head into “the Season of Giving” I thank this experience, and this sketch for reinforcing a simple but deep truth.
And also that the past only exists if someone remembers it and takes the time to commit pen to paper.
A detail from one of the plaques including the name of John Victor Stoen, who is, in some ways, the catalyst to the Jonestown tragedy.
Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People
This classic study of Jones and the Peoples Temple is written by a San Francisco reporter that covered the story and was shot on a visit to Jonestown on its last day on Earth and lived to tell the tale.
Season of the Witch
An excellent overview of a very turbulent time in San Francisco history, including chapters on the City’s most infamous spiritual leader.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
PBS (American Experience)
A 2007 PBS production featuring the anonymous letter reproduced on the left hand page. A haunting viewing proving that truth is stranger than fiction.