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As Millions Prepare for the Joys of Christmas, Some Recall the Pain of Jonestown 45 Years Later “The pain never goes away,” said woman who lost her mother.



Photos of some of the children who died in Jonestown. Graphic: Courtesy of Dr. Jynona Norwood

It's been more than 45 years since Jim Jones forced more than 900 people to poison themselves in a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guinea. For Dr. Jynona Norwood, the pain never goes away. On Nov. 18, 1978, she lost her mother, a 2-year-old cousin and 25 other family members who are now buried in an Oakland, Calif. cemetery.


“I think about my mother every day. I think about my first cousin and how they tried to escape Jonestown...The pain never goes away,” said Norwood, who took part in a Nov. 18 memorial program at Evergreen cemetery because many victims of Jonestown were from the Bay Area. But 45 years after the worst mass suicide in world history, Norwood is far from closure. That’s partially because, in that same cemetery, Jim Jones’ name is listed alongside the victims in a mass grave where 305 children are buried.


“This man was not a minister,” Dr. Norwood said. “Those children’s sacred final resting place is no longer sacred as long as Jim Jones’ name is there.” While the deaths of the members of his church, called the People’s Temple, were widely reported as a mass suicide from a cyanide-laced flavor aide, many of the factual details remain mysteries. Many were reportedly forced to drink the punch at gunpoint. Dr. Leslie Mootoo, Guyana’s chief pathologist at the time, said the majority of the bodies had puncture wounds from needles between their shoulder blades. Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), the only congressman believed to have been assassinated in the line of duty, was among five who were shot and killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip as they tried to leave Guyana after checking on reports that people were being held against their will.


“It's a tragedy because so many lives were lost,” Norwood said in a recent interview. “Generations of young people who could have become a reporter, a journalist, an actor or a doctor, the president of the United States of America, so many inventions and cures and dreams were killed by this megalomaniac at this church with people who still loved him.” Norwood said Jones was protected by the members of Peoples Temple; yet he betrayed them. “The holocaust was history but you don’t see Hitler's name on the wall, 9-11 is history [but] you don't see those who flew those planes into the Twin Towers on a wall. How dare you insult the intelligence of America.”


Upon this year's 45 anniversary, CBS interviewed retired San Francisco police captain Yulanda Williams who is a survivor and former member of the Peoples Temple. Williams said in a documentary that she, her husband and their young child followed Jones to Jonestown to be part of what they thought would be a socialist paradise. "It was truly an active concentration camp and we were guarded 24-7 by armed security officers," Williams told CBS. “The fact is that they have no respect for Congressman Leo Ryan by wanting to put his name on the same wall" with Jones who ordered him assassinated and the "United Press International news team who were only doing their job,” Norwood said. “That is a mass grave site for the children. They didn't have dental records so they had to bury most of the children in a mass grave site in California. Forty infants are in that mass grave site.” Congresswoman Barbara Lee told the Precinct Reporter News that, “The Jonestown Massacre was a senseless, horrible tragedy, born of the evil of one man, that took the lives of nearly 1,000 innocent people – many African-American and many from the Bay area.


“As a member of Congressman Ron Dellums’ staff, I handled many cases of family members who were concerned about their loved ones in Jonestown. I was invited to go to Jonestown with the late Congressman Leo Ryan and a member of his staff, my good friend former Congresswoman Jackie Speier. But at the last minute I had a family obligation that could not be missed,” Lee said.


Norwood said Jones became a fixture in the African-American community by mimicking Dr. King's speech. “That's why you saw Black and White seated together in his church,” Norwood said. “Jim Jones lured the people by first trapping them with Dr. King’s speech. The most powerful images on the screen would make you adopt a lifestyle you didn’t even believe in.”


Dr. Amos Brown, Pastor of Third Street Baptist Church in San Francisco, said Jones often offered help to the masses with food banks, set up temporary tents to pay utility bills, and bring loads of money to pay rent for those in need. But Brown also said, “The man never would take off his shades! Something didn’t quite smell right.”


When asked whether such a tragedy could happen again, Norwood said, “It has been happening again and again. Look at Waco Texas, Heavens Gate,” said Norwood. She added that Jones tricked people with kindness. “He would pay your rent. My uncle went into business with him…Look at the pictures,” Norwood said.


“Everybody was sleeping side by side. Most of them still loved him. He killed a 15-year-old, a 17-year-old a 2-year-old and you called him good. Leo Ryan never knew he was walking into an armed camp. His church said they only had 32 guns but there were thug Black men with guns. When it happened My grandmother started to call out the names of the dead and she was screaming and crying.”


Former USA Today Columnist Barbara Reynolds, who wrote a lot about the massacre when it happened said, “Jim Jones became the Black man’s savior because he sounded good, He was charismatic and he had people following him.” Reynolds' latest book,  “The rise and fall of the techno Messiah,” is about how easy it has become to spread modern day deception. “I don't say this but when I here Donald Trump speak I think about Jim Jones. Today we are flooded with lies."


Rev. Brown also said in an interview, “The legacy of Jim Jones is bad religion. He used religion to enslave, disenfranchise and to dispose Black people in America and it is happening today. Look at what [House Speaker Mike] Johnson is doing in the House of Representatives. He is bashing voting rights and he is a wolf in sheep's clothing.”

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