Thirty years ago today more than 900 people died Jonestown, a settlement in the jungle of Guyana. Often called a “massacre,” the victims in Jonestown participated in their communal demise willingly. They had practiced dry runs of this mass suicide several times before they did it for real on November 18, 1978.

The Jonestown community consisted primarily of people from the San Francisco Bay Area. Originally called the People’s Temple, the church was founded by James Warren Jones, a man who had no official theological training. He based his ministry on a blend of religion, socialist philosophy and bucket loads of fear, isolation and blind obedience.

Jones was a powerful presence, and his flock grew rapidly in the early 1970s. When mounting negative press and a pending IRS investigation threatened his unquestioned hegemony, he decided to move his congregation far from American jurisdiction. He bought a tract of land in Guyana and then in 1977, the community began a mass relocation to South America to live on an agricultural collective and practice their communal principles.

Responding to the concerns from many of his constituents about what was going on in Jonestown, California Congressman Leo Ryan flew down to the Guyana settlement in November 1978. After one of Jones’ followers tried to kill him his first day in Jonestown, Ryan decided to return to the U.S. immediately, bringing some Jonestown residents who wanted to leave with him. As the group boarded their plane, guards sent by Jones opened fire on them, killing Ryan and four others.

When Jones learned that some members of Ryan’s party had escaped alive, he told his followers that Ryan’s murder would make it impossible for their commune to continue functioning. Rather than return to the United States, they could preserve their church by making the ultimate sacrifice and offer up their own lives. Jones’s 912 followers were given a deadly concoction of Kool-aid mixed with cyanide, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Jones apparently shot himself in the head.

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Georgia Mae Catney (1917-1978)

Georgia Mae Catney moved to California from Arkansas when she was a young woman and found work as a domestic. She came into my family’s life when I was a small child, and she quickly became a steady and loved member of our extended family.

Georgia Mae was a Clydesdale. She was very strong physically and a tireless worker. My mother, also raised on a farm in rural America, shared her “work, don’t whine” approach to life. The two of them were a formidable team, working side by side to whip our house and the 7 resident children into shape every week. We learned early on that crossing Georgia Mae wasn’t a good idea. Her mother used to punish her by making her kneel on beans, and she could do much worse by you without a second thought. We got that, and all of us had a quiet respect for her tough, take no prisoners approach to childrearing.

Her good for nothing husband (by her reports) had left her some time before, so as a woman on her own she was frugal and cautious about money. And even though she could neither read nor write, she quoted the Bible constantly. Raised in a strict southern Christian tradition, she loved to talk about Jesus. When I was still a teenager, she took me with her to her local church. The crowded meeting hall was full of singing, swaying, exhuberant devotion, a far cry from the understated Christian tradition of my family. She joined the others in singing out her deep love of Jesus, thanking him for saving her.

I moved to New York City in the early 70s so I only saw Georgia Mae occasionally during my visits home. Sometime after I left California, my mother mentioned that Georgia Mae had joined a new church and was very excited about the minister. My mother also noticed that all the checks she wrote to Georgia Mae were now being endorsed directly to the People’s Temple, something that she found peculiar but did not raise as a question with Georgia Mae.

In August of 1977 with no prior warning, Georgia Mae announced to my mother that she was leaving California for good. Surprised and saddened by this news, my mother couldn’t get much information out of her about why she was moving away or where she was going. Georgia Mae’s only response was that her minister had told her that because she was black, it was not safe for her to stay in America. He was creating a place where she and her friends would be safe from harm.

When her name showed up on the list of Jonestown dead, everyone in my family was deeply grieved. As hard an outside shell as she appeared to have, there was a purity and innocence in her that made her terribly vulnerable. Her sad end still haunts me. On this, the 30th anniversary of that horrific day, I stop to take a moment to remember and honor her life.

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