Every righteous cause needs a righteous leader. The gay community had Harvey Milk. The Green Party had Matt Gonzalez. And the antisuicide movement? Without a charismatic leader, it's no wonder the movement has struggled to get a suicide barrier installed on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Of course, the antisuicide movement once had a visible leader who supported a barrier on the Golden Gate. But nobody talks about that guy anymore, probably because history remembers him as America's poster boy for mass suicide. Yup, I'm talking about the one and only late Reverend Jim Jones.
In 1978, more than 900 members of Jones' communal group, Peoples Temple, swallowed a grape-flavored drink laced with cyanide in an act he described as "revolutionary suicide." But some historians say Jones drew a sharp distinction between individual and mass suicide. The best evidence to support this view is his appearance and speech at an antisuicide rally at the Golden Gate Bridge. The rally was scheduled days after the 600th suicide at the bridge in 1977, shortly before Jones led his flock to the Jonestown settlement in Guyana.
"He saw individual suicide as something immoral and quite selfish, [which] actually might set you back in terms of your reincarnated life," says Rebecca Moore, a San Diego State University professor who runs an online archive dedicated to Jonestown and Peoples Temple. As for revolutionary suicide, she says, Jones had reinterpreted Huey Newton's idea about sacrificing oneself in struggle against the state to include literal suicide as an act of protest.
John Hall, author of Jonestown history Gone from the Promised Land, says Jones had a habit of speaking about competing ideas — communism versus capitalism, for example — that seemed to place him on one side of the issue even though history shows the opposite to be true. "He was a very convoluted person," Hall says. "Getting into Peoples Temple was sort of like peeling back layers of an onion."
So what should we make of Jones' support for the suicide barrier? "The bottom line," Hall says, "is people shouldn't let it affect their judgment one way or the other."