Processing an individual’s personal papers can bring to light interesting, and often little known, aspects about that person’s life and work. Recent work on the Marr-McGee Family Papers has revealed a file of materials related to the now infamous Peoples Temple, the organization founded by Jim Jones in the 1950s and the center of a mass-suicide in Guyana, South America, in 1978. The documents and photographs provide a look at how the Temple viewed itself and was viewed by others as supporting civil rights.
Warren Q. Marr II served as the editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1974 to 1981. During his tenure, Marr periodically received submissions to the magazine from a wide variety of sources. In July of 1978, he received a 16-page manuscript with accompanying photographs from Richard Tropp of Jonestown, Guyana. Tropp, a member of the Peoples Temple, hoped Marr would find his words “suitable for publication” in order to show the church in a positive light as it had come under increasing scrutiny by the media.
Tropp, chief of the Temple’s letter writing unit, enclosed a manuscript titled, “On the Frontier for Social Justice” which detailed the origin and mission of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. It begins:
“In the tropical forests of northern Guyana, on one of the world’s largest frontiers, an incredible invasion is taking place. Close to 1,500 people have come from America’s inner-cities to make a new start. They are part of perhaps the most militant civil rights church in the United States: Peoples Temple.”
Long before he founded the Peoples Temple, Jim Jones preached equality. He began his first church in Indianapolis, Indiana, after he was prevented from integrating the congregation where he served as a student pastor. As the leader of the Temple, Jones stressed socialist and equalitarian values and encouraged membership that crossed racial and economic lines. Eventually, African American membership in the church reached nearly 50%.
Marr also received a letter from Grandvel A. Jackson, first vice president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, encouraging him to publish an article about Jonestown. Although Jackson was not a member of the Temple, he stated “the church and its congregation have been very supportive of the programs of the NAACP” and the article should receive “serious consideration for publication.”
However, four months following Tropp’s submission, he and 917 others died at Jonestown after Jim Jones ordered his congregants to drink cyanide-laced grape Kool-Aid. Marr’s files include clipped articles about the mass-suicide from the New York Times. Tropp’s submission was never printed in The Crisis, but these materials reflect what, for many, is likely a little known aspect of the story behind the Peoples Temple and its work in the area of race relations.
Posted by Amber L. Moore
(Images from the Marr-McGee Family Papers. May not be reproduced without permission.)
William S. Wiedorn
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