Death of Dreams: In November 1978, Harvey Milk's Murder and the Mass Suicides at Jonestown Nearly Broke San Francisco's Spirit. Eerily, Milk Knew and Worked with Jonestown Founder Jim Jones

By VanDecarr, Paul | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), November 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

Death of Dreams: In November 1978, Harvey Milk's Murder and the Mass Suicides at Jonestown Nearly Broke San Francisco's Spirit. Eerily, Milk Knew and Worked with Jonestown Founder Jim Jones


VanDecarr, Paul, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


"Horror upon horror, shock upon shock.... What is there about November? What is there about San Francisco?" So declaimed local journalist Herb Caen just one day after the November 27, 1978, murders of openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

Twenty-five years later, most gay men and lesbians have beard the story of Milk's rise to national prominence as one of the first openly gay lawmakers in the country. And most have heard about how the murders of Milk and Moscone east a shadow over a previously optimistic and seemingly carefree San Francisco, But many people don't realize that the murders were the second tragedy to strike the city in as many weeks.

Only nine days earlier, a local religious and civic leader named Jim Jones led more than 900 people--most of them San Franciscans--to kill themselves and each other. The deaths took place in ,Jonestown, a communal settlement in the South American country of Guyana, built by members of Jones's San Francisco-based Peoples Temple.

Together, these events dealt a tremendous blow to San Francisco's turbulent and ongoing attempt to make itself a beacon of social, political, and sexual freedom. "It felt like the world was imploding," says Brian Freeman, a gay man who had just moved to San Francisco from Boston at the time. "It marked the end of the utopian ideal for the Bay Area." In tandem, the two events became regarded as an "only in San Francisco" story. And that made sense to most Americans--regardless of their political affiliation-because only a city that had reached so high could fall so far.

San Francisco was a national leader in progressive polities, with a liberal political coalition represented by Moscone, a gay rights movement championed by Milk, and an experiment in multiracial community forged, in large part, by Peoples Temple. The city had been a focal point for cultural and political change throughout the preceding decade--the area was home to hippies, the free speech movement, the Black Panthers, and tens of thousands of gay people who migrated there throughout the 1970s.

"Gay people were organizing as a visible, powerful force ... at the center of rebuilding a city that had been abandoned by longtime residents and their adult children," says Jim Rivaldo, a political consultant and associate of Milk's "Every day you had a sense that this had never been done."

A similar, if more weary, sense of optimism existed in Peoples Temple, a ministry for the urban poor, headquartered in the city's economically depressed Fillmore district, hi the 1960s and early '70s the Fillmore trod been radically altered by urban renewal, which community activists such as Arnold Townsend derided as "Negro removal." Peoples Temple--a congregation loosely affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination--countered that, offering the neighborhood a social justice agenda, housing and drug rehabilitation programs, and political influence.

Jones, the temple's white founder and pastor, presided over the predominantly African-American congregation. And thousands joined its ranks. The temple was outspoken, if not active, in support of various progressive causes and political campaigns, including Moscone's and Milk's. Once elected mayor, Moscone rewarded Jones for his support by appointing him head of the city's housing authority.

Milk was of two minds about the temple. He accepted temple members' help in his successful 1977 campaign for board of supervisors--which made him one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country and certainly the most popular. But he also reportedly said temple members were "weird and dangerous."

He was not alone in this assessment. As the temple grew in size and status, Jones faced increasing scrutiny from the press, which investigated reports of "suicide drills," physical and sexual abuse, and extortion. In August 1977 the San Francisco Examiner published a damning two-part investigation on its front page. …

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