Forty years ago, more than 900 members of the California-based cult, Peoples Temple, died in a mass murder-suicide initiated by the eccentric, alluring and increasingly paranoid, Jim Jones. It was largest loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until September 11. Most people know the story or at least pieces of Peoples Temple history, as Jones is one of the most infamous cult leaders in American culture.
But despite what we read or watched in many of the subsequent television shows and documentaries, “outsiders” may never fully understand the how and why behind the mass suicide.
But Laura Johnston Kohl, a Jonestown survivor, says the world shouldn’t focus on how the victims died but rather how they lived – with a collective hope and desire to make the world better.
A Young Activist
Today, Laura is 71, years and heartaches removed from her 22-year-old self who became a member of Peoples Temple. She grew up in Washington D.C., becoming a young adult during one of the most tumultuous times in American history. The Vietnam War was tearing our country apart. Young men were dying halfway across the world and the Civil Rights movement was bringing racial injustices to the forefront.
“People were dying and I wanted to do something to change that,” Laura says. “John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were all assassinated and I wanted to do something to change the world.”
So she protested at the Pentagon in the late 60s and enrolled at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut where she studied philosophy until she failed out after three years.
“I had a guidance counselor ask me how you flunk out after three years because no one flunks out after three years – it’s usually after the first semester or first year but I guess I’ve always been an odd duck out,” she says.
In 1969, she got married but soon after got a divorce. She later found love with a fellow activist, when she dated a Black Panther. However, this relationship was also not meant to be.
Every Wednesday night, Laura would open up her apartment so the Black Panthers could hold weekly meetings even though she lived in a building with all white, mostly middle-class residents and at the time, a lot of neighborhoods were not integrated.
But one evening, Laura’s then-boyfriend shot another member who was supposedly sitting too closely to Laura during a meeting. The victim didn’t die, but Laura recalls how she, as a white woman couldn’t go with the other members to take the victim to the hospital. She was left alone in her apartment, tasked with cleaning up the blood in the living room, in the stairwell and in the lobby.
“There are times in my life that things have happened that are so clear,” she says. “We call it a teachable moment in education but that was a moment in my life I realized things were going really wrong. My calling was to be involved in politics and as I was doing the clean up, I knew this wasn’t the right way to do that.”
In March 1970, wanting a fresh start, she moved to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco to be with her older sister. Less than a week after moving to California she was introduced to Jim Jones.
When Good People Follow A Bad Leader
Her older sister brought her to Peoples Temple but rejected the church mainly because she was put off by Jones’ oversized ego. But Laura wasn’t naïve – she saw it too but overlooked his hubris because she was “delighted” to belong to a family of like-minded people.
“The ends justified the means,” she says. “I viewed Jim as my protector and a father figure – I thought it was going to work.”
“They [the members] were some of the best people I ever knew. Just because Jim Jones was bad doesn’t mean that that the people who trusted him were bad. They just wanted to make the world better – the whole truth doesn’t get explained very often.”
One of the things Laura loved most about Peoples Temple was how it exposed her to people and things she never knew before. In her early days, she recalls meeting lawyers, medical students, accountants, teachers and “wonderful people of all colors and all backgrounds.”
“The part of Peoples Temple I love even to this day was that we were a group of people who had more differences than similarities,” she says.
“When Jim talked about having an integrated community, we had all visualized that. We were people who were not happy with the status quo and so however different we were in race, background, education or economics, we made a commitment to bring about an integrated community – these were people determined and dedicated to do that.”
Their faith wasn’t in Jones. Their initial and fundamental goal was to move the country away from racial and societal divisions into a more inclusive era – a country with “freedom and racial equality,” Laura says.
Extremely ambitious goals required even more extreme mindsets and work ethics. In sum, the members of Peoples Temple took their political duties seriously. They integrated everything they did and tackled stereotypes, racial training and entitlement in order to bring about a change.
“People say Jim was a great speaker with a charismatic personality and he was all those different things. But really, he just brought together people who were already dissatisfied with how the world was going,” she says.
“Even when we weren’t with him, we were a group of people determined to make a difference in this world and not accept things. A lot of the time that’s overlooked.”
During her time in Peoples Temple, Laura became friends with people who had sat at lunch counters in Alabama, who had worked with the Black Panthers in Oakland or who worked with the Native Americans to restore their rights.
While Laura admits Jones did focus them along the way, she says the members were willing to make sacrifices for the betterment of society before they met him.
Dreams In A Different Land
In March 1977 – seven years from when she first joined Peoples Temple – Laura moved to Guyana. Jones hired Laura to work in Georgetown to send the necessary items to get Jonestown up and running.
She bought everything from machinery parts to new shoes and medicine and shipped the supplies by boat, which would take another 24 hours to reach Jonestown, after the ship docked in Georgetown.
She held this role for a year until March 1978 when Jones asked her to move to Jonestown, where she worked on the public services department and agricultural crew. At night, she taught Spanish to the children and worked in the law office.
Although she loved her work in Jonestown and Georgetown, the cracks in Jones’ façade were starting to appear. “He was finding out a lot that summer – the summer that there were nearly 1,000 people there,” Laura says.
“He was finding out Jonestown was never going to be self-sufficient, he was finding out that at least nine families had gone to court stating that Jim didn’t have the legal authorization to have certain kids there – some were foster kids and other were taken by their grandparents or other relatives,” she says. “And later, two of his secretaries left Jonestown.”
And on top of that, he was finding out Congressman Leo Ryan planned to visit Guyana.
As the walls started to cave in, Jones became increasingly more paranoid and his response was to spread this fear among the other Peoples Temple members.
In late October 1978, Jones sent Laura back to Georgetown. She went willingly; not realizing everything he knew or what was to come weeks later.
Days before the Jonestown massacre, Congressman Ryan paid a visit to those living in Georgetown, asking them about Jones and how they were liking it Guyana.
Laura didn’t know Jones’ primary intent of sending her to Georgetown was for appearances, or in other words, to “stack the house” with people who loved Jonestown and would personify that love and stability to the congressman.
“I loved Guyana. I loved working in Georgetown, I loved Jonestown – I loved all of it,” she says. “So what Jim had done is that he had put everyone in Georgetown who liked it to make sure they were in front and the people who had reservations were sent back to Jonestown. He had set up a situation where Ryan only saw the cheerleaders of the group and that’s what I was.”
The events leading up to the massacre are well known as the murder of Congressman Ryan and four others set the stage for what was to come in both Jonestown and Georgetown where Sharon Amos, top aide to Jones, killed herself and her three children.
There were about 50 people living in Georgetown, with Laura being one of the people not present in Jonestown where the mass murder-suicide took place.
Laura used to believe it was a fluke that she survived but now, knowing what she does about Jones, she realizes that it was all part of his strategy to have positive people front and center in Georgetown. Essentially, what saved her was her devotion to Peoples Temple, which ironically could have also been the thing that killed her.
“There’s no way that I could watch 917 of the people I love die and for some reason think I shouldn’t,” she says. “So I can’t imagine surviving Jonestown. It was tough enough when I didn’t see it so there’s not much question in my mind that I would survive something like that.”
A Survivor Honors Her Family
In May of this year, Laura was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma. She says it’s an up in the air diagnosis but she’s currently undergoing chemotherapy and fortunately, has the support from other survivors who have also been instrumental in helping her cope with the loss of the people she initially thought she would be spending the rest of her life with.
“There can never be closure,” she says. “Only acknowledgement for the people that died. Fifteen of my closest friends are people who were a part of Peoples Temple. There’s not a way for someone who wasn’t a survivor to get it.”
Since the events at Jonestown 40 years ago, Laura says her view of leadership and religion has changed drastically. She now describes activism as her religion and makes a point to question people in a position of power – and encourages others to do the same.
She currently lives in San Diego where she’s heavily involved with the Southern Poverty Law Center, immigration groups and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) where she works to make changes to America’s prison system.
“It’s really important to get a justified incarceration system so it’s not a reversal to slavery,” she says. “There’s a huge preponderance of people in prison – people of color who have had misdemeanors or lightweight cases and they’re held over because they don’t have money for bail.”
And last year, Laura even had a young man receiving sanctuary live at her home while he was finishing high school.
Laura believes the members of Peoples Temple who died would be proud of her for what she’s doing but she also thinks that on November 18, 1978 the world lost key figures that would have been crucial in helping her address these issues.
“I think we lost a lot of people who would be vigilant in fighting the kind of stuff we’re seeing everyday. They were people that would take on establishment to stop the really horrific stuff we’re seeing,” she says. “So in a way it was a terrible loss. Those people would have been the soldiers of civil rights and human rights and for them not to be here – they’re much needed these days.”
But although there are not here to spread their message, Laura is using her voice and actions to spread her own message – one that has nothing to do with Jim Jones.
“We have to understand Jim was a con artist who was able to con wonderful people. We don’t have to spend much more time realizing he was a broken piece of machinery who was somehow able to find 900 of the best people in the world to come work with him,” she says.
“I don’t want to focus on him so much – he’s dead already. I do hate him but it’s a waste of time to dwell on the hate because it doesn’t solve anything. The only thing I can do with my life is make it better and honor the people who died by remembering the great work they did and the vision they had and how they were motivated by integrity and love and trying to make the world better and I don’t want to lose track of that.”