NOVEMBER 1978: A popular religious and civic leader from San Francisco named Jim Jones leads
over 900 people—mostly African-Americans and many from San Francisco—to murder and
suicide in a remote jungle community of Guyana called “Jonestown.” Though far from San
Francisco, the catastrophe strikes at the heart of the city’s public life. Only nine days later, on
November 27, ex-police officer and city Supervisor Dan White enters San Francisco City Hall and
assassinates Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. These two events—which
devastated San Francisco’s African-American and gay communities—formed a defining moment in the
city’s turbulent and ongoing attempt to make itself a beacon of social, political, and sexual freedom.
The intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation at this moment in San Francisco history
formed a far more complicated picture than has yet been drawn. The popular record of this time and
these events is overwhelmingly white and male; while white men in particular figure prominently in
gay rights (Harvey Milk), city politics (Mayor Moscone) and Jonestown (Jim Jones), this limited range
of investigation leaves out a great deal. The story has been simplified in large part because these
events have assumed the status of popular mythology. All the dramatic elements are there—sex,
murder, revenge, madness—and all in that most storied of American cities, San Francisco.
The end of World War II wrought major changes on San Francisco. Thousands of returning soldiers,
many of them dishonorably discharged for being gay, made the city by the bay their new home.
Meanwhile, many African-Americans who did not go to war were displaced from their jobs by
returning white soldiers. Heavy industry, including shipbuilding and related trades, went into decline
in the decades following the war. Thus began the shift from a largely industrial and conservative city,
to one with an economy based increasingly on tourism and banking, and known for its progressive
social and political scene. The Beat poets of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s were only the
most famous examples of the first decades of this change. Also active were the free-speech
movement at UC Berkeley, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement’s takeover of Alcatraz
island, and movements for prisoners’ rights, women’s liberation, gay freedom, and soon a more
prominent anti-nuclear groundswell.
The neighborhoods at the nexus of these events were experiencing tectonic shifts. The predominantly
African-American Fillmore district, home to Peoples Temple and many of its members, had been the
site of a major urban renewal plan that opponents derided as being nothing more than “Negro
removal.” Just two miles away, thousands of gay men (mostly white, but more diverse than is usually
acknowledged) were streaming into the Eureka Valley neighborhood (later called “The Castro”) from
all over the nation, causing radical shifts in the nature of the district. In addition, there was growing
public sentiment citywide in favor of slow-growth, which found its political expression in the form of
George Moscone, elected Mayor in 1975 under a promise that not one new skyscraper would be
built downtown on his watch. Two years later, Harvey Milk was elected to the city’s Board of
Supervisors, making him one of the first openly gay politicians in the nation. Both Moscone and Milk
received substantial campaign support (and votes) from Peoples Temple and its members.
Rev. Jim Jones had founded Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in 1955, moved with 100 of his followers
to Ukiah, California in 1965, and then to San Francisco in 1971. The Temple was controversial for its
support of racial integration, lauded for its social service programs, and politically influential thanks to
its savvy pastor and dedicated membership. Jones, who was white, presided over a predominantly
African American congregation. Jim Jones drew heavily on the rhetoric
of civil rights and Black Power leaders, including Huey Newton’s
notion of “revolutionary suicide,” a concept of a life of political
struggle which Jones reinterpreted to mean something else
altogether. As the Temple grew in size and status, Jones faced
increasing scrutiny from the press, which investigated reports of
“suicide drills,” physical abuse, sexual indiscretion, and extortion.
Under pressure, Jones and some 1,000 members of Peoples
Temple moved to Jonestown, a settlement they had established in
a remote jungle of Guyana, South America to serve as a
multiracial socialist paradise. The residents of Jonestown had, in
some sense, renounced their American citizenship. Most were
African-American, and thus were denied a certain humanity by whites;
and all had left the United States to live in an agricultural commune in
a socialist country. These settlers remained at Jonestown until the
suicides/murders on November 18, 1978, which were conceived as a
“revolutionary” response to an allegedly unjust world that persecuted
* * *
My research into this time in San Francisco history concerns what
tensions of class, race, and sexual orientation are revealed by these
events. In what ways were the murders and suicides of November
1978 the violent culmination of broader changes taking place in San
Francisco, especially in urban development and community formation?
Jim Jones was ministering to a congregation whose community was
decimated by urban renewal, even as he sought to take control of
members’ real estate and financial holdings; not incidentally, Jones was also appointed as head of the
city’s housing authority by Mayor Moscone. As a city Supervisor, Dan White was supported in good
part by real estate interests, and stood against many of the ideals of Milk and Moscone. In Peoples
Temple, Jones would often remark that he was the only true heterosexual, even as he had some
sexual relations with men and encouraged heterosexual couplings among members, often interracial
ones. In spite of the structural racism evident in Peoples Temple, many African-Americans joined, and
many supposedly progressive white people left this racism unchallenged—and yet they all joined the
Temple. These are but a few of the complicating factors in an earth-shaking moment in San Francisco
history, a moment that revealed cultural fault lines still being reckoned with today. u
Paul VanDeCarr is a writer and filmmaker living in San Francisco, and is working on two documentaries, one on
November 1978 in San Francisco, and another on the legacy of Jonestown. He can be reached at

Paul VanDeCarr,
winner of last
year’s Martin
Fellowship for his
research on “Ten
Days that Shook
San Francisco,”
presented some of
his findings at a
CLAGS colloquium
on May 21.