Woe, weeping: San Francisco, November 1978

Harvey Milk, the subject of a 2008 film starring Sean Penn , graduated from New York State College for Teachers in Albany in 1951.

The events of November 1978 were terribly difficult for the city of San Francisco.

The The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ… was “a new religious movement founded in 1955 by Jim Jones” in Indianapolis, IN. “Jones used the Peoples Temple to spread a message that combined elements of Christianity with communist and socialist ideas, as well as an emphasis on racial equality.” The Peoples Temple had moved a few times, relocating to San Francisco in the early 1970s.

In 1974, the Peoples Temple rented land in Guyana and “created the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, or, informally, ‘Jonestown.’ It had as few as 50 residents in early 1977.” After Jim Jones left for Guyana in 1978, under increasing media scrutiny, he encouraged Temple members to follow him there.

“On November 17, 1978, Leo Ryan, a U.S. Congressman from the San Francisco area investigating claims of abuse within the Peoples Temple, visited Jonestown. During Ryan’s visit, a number of Temple members expressed a desire to leave with him, and, on November 18, they accompanied Ryan to the local airstrip.”

They were intercepted by “self-styled Temple security guards who opened fire on the group,” killing Ryan, NBC News journalist Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown (who filmed the shooters), San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson and defecting Temple member Patricia Parks. “The murder of Congressman Ryan was the first and only murder of a Congressman in the line of duty in the history of the United States.”

That evening, in Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered his congregation to drink a concoction of cyanide-laced, grape-flavored Flavor Aid . In all, 918 people died, including 276 children, mostly from the Bay Area. I remember an ashen Mayor George Moscone announce Rep. Ryan’s death, and soon thereafter, the massacre.

Then, on November 27, Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed in City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White. “White was angry that Moscone had refused to reappoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors, from which he had just resigned, and that Milk had lobbied heavily against his reappointment.”

I watched then-Board President Dianne Feinstein weep as she announced the murders of Moscone and Milk, almost certainly the most prominent gay politician in the United States of that time.

Harvey Milk, the subject of a 2008 film starring Sean Penn , graduated from New York State College for Teachers in Albany in 1951, the predecessor of my alma mater, UAlbany. Feinstein became the first female mayor of San Francisco and eventually U.S. Senator for California.

Some believe the two events are even more related, because some politicians gave early support to the charismatic Jones, including Moscone, Milk, governor Jerry Brown and state Assembly leader Willie Brown (no relation).

Most of this I remembered reasonably well, given the fact that it took place 40 years ago. One piece I did not know was that Jackie Speier , a congressional staffer for Ryan, was shot five times at the Guyana airstrip and waited 22 hours before help arrived. She survived and now is a member of Congress representing much of the district that Ryan, her mentor, served.

For ABC Wednesday

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