Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Jonestown Memorial

The Jonestown Memorial Foundation is dedicating a memorial at the burial site in an Oakland cemetery on Memorial Day. One family member of a person who died in Jonestown has been fighting the memorial for years, because it will include the name of Jim Jones among those who died. She is now before a local court seeking an injunction to stop the ceremony. The Jonestown Memorial Foundation asked that I send a note in support of the memorial that could be presented to the court. This is what I sent.

“The California Historical Society has the honor and responsibility to be the official, court-designated repository for the official records associated with Peoples Temple and Jonestown. We accept with gravity that weighty responsibility as a trustee of all of the complex relationships, overwhelming emotions, and competing interpretations of everything associated with Peoples Temple, and especially of the overpowering tragedy of Jonestown.

Every year, on the anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy, the California Historical Society sets aside a day where the descendents and family members of those who lost loved ones in Jonestown can grieve, heal, and renew. It is a powerful experience and a spiritual commitment that we accept in deep humility.

But, while this experience among the visual and documentary evidence of our memories is important and consoling, it is limited, personal, and private. A simple, elegant, and public memorial at Evergreen Cemetery not only is appropriate, but is demanded, in order to allow the broadest public and the most private individual to share together in the healing experience of memory. Of course there is hurt that will never be healed and anger that never will be assuaged. But the power of just simply and publicly identifying all of those who lost their lives—all of them—in this tragedy perhaps is the only chance of ultimate closure.

To anyone who considers this memorial inappropriate, I urge you to think of the power of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The officers who died while misleading American troops, officials, and citizens over the nature of the war are still listed on the wall. No name on that wall has had to pass a litmus test of purity or intent. They all died together. And today they are all remembered together. We have no more right to exclude from our community memory those who (perhaps correctly) we now judge harshly than we have to exclude George Washington or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson from the national parchment because they owned slaves.

We cannot ask of history that it be fair or balanced or positive or expulitory. Indeed, it may explain nothing more than the heroic vanity of the human spirit. History is nothing more than one of many potential futures that could have happened—but this one did. It may not be the future—or the past—that you or I would have wanted, or even that the participants who created it intended. But it is the past all the same. Just because a particular event, a particular history, is not what we would have intended, because it hurts, because it is unresolved, is all the more reason to remember. We honor those who had their own dreams and strove to fulfill them, like those in Jonestown, by remembering them. We honor the people who suffered unpredicted and inconceivable horror, like those in Jonestown, by remembering them. That is why this memorial is needed. Please support it.”

For more information on the Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society, visit

---David Crosson, Executive Director of the California Historical Society
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