How the Peoples Temple cult leader ensnared Harvey Milk and other progressive icons
Left: Former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. Right: The Rev. Jim Jones, pastor of Peoples Temple in San Francisco (Credit: AP)
Jim Jones, the strange and charismatic leader of Peoples Temple, proved a master at politically wiring San Francisco in the mid-1970s. The driven preacher had begun his climb up the political pyramid by planting roots in the Fillmore district, the city’s devastated black neighborhood. Jones moved into the Fillmore at its most vulnerable moment. Urban renewal czar Justin Herman – the Robert Moses of San Francisco — had “literally destroyed the neighborhood,” observed community activist Hannibal Williams, “[and] people were desperate for solutions, something to follow. Jim Jones was another solution. He had a charismatic personality that won the hearts and souls of people. And people followed him to hell. That’s where Jim Jones went. That’s where he took the people who followed him.”
Jones’s flock, ignored and scorned by society, was electrified by the preacher’s vision of a new Eden. Everybody was exalted in his services, even the lowliest recovering drunks and addicts. “He made us feel special, like something bigger than ourselves,” said one temple member. “Total equality, no rich or poor, no races,” said another. “We were alive in those services,” testified one more. “They had life, soul power.”
Jones — an oddball and renegade his entire life, someone who never felt at home in his own skin — had found his identity by taking on a black persona. He saw himself following in the footsteps of Malcolm and Martin, leading “his” people out of bondage and into the promised land.
In reality, Jones maintained a racial hierarchy within the organization. While church membership was primarily black, the 37-member planning commission, as Jones called his leadership council, was dominated by white women — at least six of whom were his sexual conquests and firmly under his sway. “When people talk about my father manipulating black people, that’s true,” said Jim Jones Jr., the preacher’s black adopted son. “It was politically advantageous for him to give me his name.”
There was something exhibitionistic about the way that Jones and his wife treated their black son. “I was the chosen one,” he said. “I was more loved in my family than the other kids, even their biological son, Stephan. I remember Mom wiping charcoal off a dirty pot one day and rubbing it all over her face — to show that we were all black.”
Jones soon learned that his control over a well-organized, mixed-race army of some 8,000 dedicated followers gave him major stature with San Francisco’s liberal elite. Redevelopment had bulldozed the Fillmore’s political power into the ground. But now this strange white man with the hipster shades, Indian-black hair, and cadences of a black Bible-thumper seemed to be erecting a new political power line into the rubble-strewn, crime-ridden no-man’s-land. Jones could be counted on to deliver busloads of obedient, well-dressed disciples to demonstrations, campaign rallies, and political precincts. The city’s liberal Burton machine — run by congressional powerhouse Phil Burton — quickly identified the Peoples Temple juggernaut as a potentially game-changing ally in its long battle to take over city hall.
It was Burton ally Willie Brown – a rising force in California’s state capital — who first recognized that Jones’s organization could play a pivotal role in his friend George Moscone’s run for mayor. Moscone, a charming and handsome state legislator, had electrified San Francisco progressives with his campaign for city hall. A champion of gays, women, minorities, tenants and organized labor, Moscone was locked in a tight race with a pack of opponents led by conservative realtor John Barbagelata, whose campaign evoked a nostalgia for an older San Francisco, when it was ruled by traditional Catholic values. A meeting was set up between Jones and Moscone in the office of Don Bradley, the candidate’s veteran campaign manager. Bradley was initially cautious. “I was a little leery we were getting into something like the Moonies,” he later recalled. But after he looked into the temple’s campaign history and saw how effective it was in delivering victories, Bradley enthusiastically embraced Jones’s volunteer army. Nearly 200 temple members showed up at Moscone headquarters, fanning out to campaign in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, and helping the candidate finish first in the November 1975 election.
In the December runoff between Moscone and Barbagelata, Peoples Temple went even further to secure victory for its candidate. On the eve of the election, Jones filled buses with temple members in Redwood Valley and Los Angeles and shuttled them to San Francisco. Security at polling places was lax on Election Day, and many nonresidents were able to cast their ballots for Moscone, some more than once. “You could have run around to 1200 precincts and voted 1200 times,” said a bitter Barbagelata later, after losing by a whisper of a margin. But he was not the only one who claimed that the Peoples Temple stole the election for George Moscone. Temple leaders also claimed credit.
“We loaded up all 13 of our buses with maybe 70 people on each bus, and we had those buses rolling nonstop up and down the coast into San Francisco the day before the election,” recalled Jim Jones Jr. “We had people going from precinct to precinct to vote. So could we have been the force that tipped the election to Moscone? Absolutely! Slam dunk. He only won by 4,000 votes. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to give my father credit for that. I think he did the right thing. George Moscone was a good person; he wanted what was best for San Francisco.”
Jim Jones made sure that George Moscone never forgot his political debt to Peoples Temple. The man who began his term in city hall with a ringing promise to make San Francisco a beacon of enlightenment would start off his administration with a wretched burden on his back. The mayor could never rid himself of the stench of contagion that Jones brought with him, and as time went by, the power-hungry preacher only sunk his fangs in deeper. The pastor was a wickedly smart reader of a politician’s character, and he knew that the way to enchant Moscone was with young women, not money. When it came to bribing politicians, the temple leader had ample supplies of both. Jones bragged of supplying Moscone with black female members of his congregation. Jim Jones Jr. remembered the mayor as “a party guy. He’d always be there at temple parties with a cocktail in his hand and doing some ass grabbing.”
Temple insiders talked about how Mayor Moscone was one of the politicians under the control of “Father.” They gossiped about the night that the mayor had fallen into Jones’s hands. “Moscone was known to be a boozer; he liked to drink at parties,” recalled temple member Hue Fortson, now a pastor in Southern California. “One night there was some sort of temple event that the mayor attended. The next morning I heard that Jones phoned Moscone and told him it was a pleasure to see him the night before and to see him having such a good time. ‘But I want to let you know that the young lady you went off with is underage,’ Jones told him. ‘Now don’t worry, Mayor, we’ll take care of you — because we know that you’ll take care of us.’”
Jones might have made up the stories of sexual blackmail. He was known to concoct outlandish tales. “Jim was always bragging that he had sexually compromising information about politicians,” remembered Terri Buford, an on-again, off-again mistress of Jones who belonged to the temple’s inner circle. “But you never knew if what he said was true. He once told me that Willie Brown was sexually attracted to him. He just made stuff up.”
Whether or not Moscone was sexually compromised by Jones, he was certainly politically ensnared. The mayor initially resisted the temple’s efforts to insert its members throughout city government. And when Jones himself pushed for a high-level appointment, Moscone at first tried to appease him with a harmless post on the human rights commission. But the temple leader insisted on a position that had more clout, and the mayor decided he was in no position to alienate Jones. In October 1976 Moscone announced that he was naming Jones to the San Francisco Housing Authority, which oversees the operation of the city’s public housing. The agency, the largest landlord in the city, was a notorious maze of corruption, and it provided Jones’s organization with ample opportunity for shady self-dealing. A few months later, Moscone pulled strings to promote Jones, making him chairman.
Jones swept into the normally tedious meetings of the housing commission like a banana republic despot, surrounded by an entourage of aides and grim-faced security guards. Looking stern and inscrutable behind his aviator sunglasses, Jones ran the meetings with scripted precision while sipping a frothy white drink brought to him by a hovering retainer. The audience, packed with elderly black temple worshippers, erupted into wild cheers at his most routine pronouncements. Temple enforcers roamed through the meetings, keeping a watchful vigil, and even blocking people from entering the bathroom while Jones was inside.
Jones used his position to take possession of public housing units and install temple members in them, and he put other followers on the housing authority payroll. The preacher was building his own power base within city government. “He was using his power to recruit members and to put the hammer on people,” said David Reuben, an investigator for San Francisco District Attorney Joseph Freitas, another politician under Jones’s sway. “He had a lot of authority.”
“Jim Jones helped George Moscone run this city,” said Jim Jones Jr., a chillingly matter-of-fact assessment of the temple leader’s creeping encroachment in San Francisco.
Political leaders, aware of Jones’s ability to deliver — or manufacture — votes, lined up to pay tribute to the preacher. He worked his way into the good graces of officials high and low — most of them Democrats, since that was the party in power in California and San Francisco in the mid-1970s. But Jones was also happy to exchange mutually complimentary correspondence with the offices of Ronald Reagan and statesman Henry Kissinger.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jones wangled a private meeting with Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, at the elegant Stanford Court Hotel on Nob Hill, arriving with a security contingent that was larger than her Secret Service squad. Later Jones accompanied Moscone and a group of Democratic dignitaries who climbed aboard vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s private jet when it touched down at San Francisco International Airport.
Governor Jerry Brown sang the preacher’s praises. Congressman John Burton, Phil’s brother, lobbied the governor to appoint Jones to the high-profile board of regents, which oversaw California’s sprawling public university system. San Francisco Supervisor – now U.S. Senator — Dianne Feinstein accepted an invitation to lunch with Jones and to tour Peoples Temple.
But no political figures were more gushing in their praise of Jones than Willie Brown and Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s rising tribune of gay freedom. Milk, a perennial candidate for office until he finally won a supervisor’s seat in 1977, aggressively sought Jones’s political blessing. “Our paths have crossed,” Milk wrote Jones during an earlier campaign for supervisor, in a letter filled with the kind of awed reverence that the cult leader demanded from his followers. “They will stay crossed. It is a fight that I will walk with you into . . . The first time I heard you, you made a statement: ‘Take one of us, and you must take all of us.’ Please add my name.”
Not content to hear dignitaries whisper flatteries into his ear, Jones staged a testimonial banquet in his own honor and demanded that politicians in his debt offer him public tribute. On the evening of September 25, 1976, the Peoples Temple headquarters on Geary Boulevard was converted into a formal dining hall with linen tablecloths and floral arrangements. At the head table sat Mayor Moscone, District Attorney Freitas, and Assemblyman Willie Brown, who acted as the evening’s exuberant master of ceremonies. As he introduced the man of the hour to the overflow audience, Brown reached new heights of shameless, ass-kissing puffery. “Let me present to you,” Brown roared, “a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein . . . Chairman Mao.” By the time Jones rose to tumultuous applause, he seemed likely to walk on water.
Privately, San Francisco political leaders expressed doubts about Jones and his strange church. One day a friend of Milk’s named Tory Hartmann dropped off some boxes of campaign brochures at Peoples Temple, so that Jones’s army could distribute them. Hartmann was immediately unnerved by the uptight, high-security atmosphere inside the temple, where sentries stood at attention outside each room, like the palace guards in the Wicked Witch’s castle. “This is a church?” Hartmann said to herself. Later, after she sped back to the Castro and told Milk about her bizarre experience, the naturally cheery politician turned deadly serious. “Make sure you’re always nice to the Peoples Temple,” he told her. “They’re weird and they’re dangerous, and you never want to be on their bad side.”
Cleve Jones, a young Milk aide, accompanied him to Peoples Temple for a couple of Sunday services. “Harvey told me, ‘Be careful, they tape everything.’ Everyone knew Jim Jones was creepy, everyone knew he was a megalomaniac. But everybody also saw this church full of black and white people — black people from the Fillmore who had been subjected to apartheid-like policies and seemed to finally be getting some respect.”
Members of Moscone’s staff were also beginning to hear troubling reports about Peoples Temple. One day mayoral aide Dick Sklar suggested to his family maid — an African-American woman who had followed the Sklars to San Francisco from Ohio — that she attend a Sunday service at Peoples Temple. “I didn’t know anything about it,” Sklar said, “but she was a churchgoing woman, and I thought she might like it. Afterward she came back and said it was the scariest place she’d ever been. They searched her, asked her questions. I had no idea.”
Moscone himself could not ignore how peculiar his political ally was. “I was at every meeting that Jim Jones ever attended with the mayor,” said Moscone press secretary Corey Busch. “I can tell you that after every one of those meetings, the reaction was, ‘This is one weird bird.’ He always wore the dark glasses. You couldn’t predict Jonestown, but he was definitely weird. In retrospect, maybe we should have seen that, but we didn’t.”
Excerpted from “Season of the Witch” by David Talbot. Copyright 2012 by David Talbot. Excerpted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.