Sharkey native survived Jonestown

Published 12:50 am Sunday, November 23, 2014

SURVIVOR: Sharkey County native Herbert Newell on a California Beach 36 years after Jonestown.

SURVIVOR: Sharkey County native Herbert Newell on a California Beach 36 years after Jonestown.

Thirty-six years ago this week, a 20-year-old Herbert Newell was locked away in a dirty jail cell in Guyana trying to come to grips with the world that had fallen apart around him.
His family, friends and girlfriend lay dead in the South American jungle that was supposed to be a paradise.
He had gone to work and told them he would be back Sunday morning, but Sunday was forever ago and Jonestown — the settlement his family members and hundreds of other good, hardworking people built and tended to — had come to a devastating end.
Was this what all the hard work was all for? Would he ever see freedom again?
This cell was a long way, both figuratively and literally, from the tiny Sharkey County community where Newell was born.

The genesis
There wasn’t much in Blanton for a poor, black family in the 1960s.
Newell grew up on a farm in the community along U.S. 61 in rural Sharkey County. His mother, Hazle Marie Newell, was born in Warren County in 1927 and married Cleveland Newell Sr.
Their life was simple but rewarding, Newell recalls.
“My parents were sharecroppers, and we lived on one of the plantation owner’s land,” Newell said by phone this week from his home in Los Angeles.
The family was very poor, but Newell was too young to notice or care. Instead, he enjoyed the county lifestyle that involved picking pecans and berries alongside the road and attending the tiny Cary Elementary School. The most extravagant things the family ever had were when his mother would bake a pie for the holidays.
“You didn’t think about it,” he said of growing up in poverty. “My father always provided for us. There was always food on the table. We made due with what we had.”
In the late 1960s, the family moved to California after one of his sisters and father found work there and sent for the rest of the family.
There, a member of the Peoples Temple of Los Angeles invited his sister to attend services at the stately columned brown brick building at Alvarado and Hoover streets. His family never went to church together before, so they decided to try the church founded by a fiery Disciples of Christ preacher named Jim Jones.
They found people of all races and ages worshiping together but were unaware that Jones had already begun to stray from the doctrine of the Christian Church.
“Had we been in church and reading our Bible, we would have known that this was not something Christianlike or of God,” Newell said.
People of all ages and races attended the church where the message was at first equality, Newell said.
“As we got into it more and more, they would send two or three buses down there to L.A. and take people to San Francisco for the weekend,” Newell said.
San Francisco was Jones’ base of operations in the 1970s.
Newell really wasn’t into the church at first, and after graduating high school in 1976 he planned to join the military. A church counselor talked him out of it.
“She told me the service was no place for a black man, and it changed my mind,” Newell said.
The Temple instead sponsored him to go on a summer bus tour of the country with other church members. The trip deepened his involvement with the ill-fated Peoples Temple.
“I thought it was a good thing, a good place for me,” Newell said.

The false prophet
The Temple had something big in store for Newell and his family.
Jones had established The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project — commonly known as Jonestown — in Guyana in 1974, and in 1977 he announced the church members would be moving there.
The small country on the north coast of South America was an obvious choice for Jones’ utopia. Guyana had gained independence from Great Britain in 1966, and English was the country’s official language. There was lush, dense jungle to be isolated from the outside world. A plot of land in the middle of that jungle was to become paradise on earth.
Or that’s what the Peoples Temple members believed.
“It’s like the Bible says, many false prophets have gone out into the world,” Newell said.
Many of Newell’s family members including his mother, brothers and sisters and cousins, flocked to the newly established Jonestown. Newell wasn’t far behind.
He arrived in Guyana in March 1978 with about 60 other people. It was the last major migration to the experimental colony.
Newell’s father never liked Jones’ teaching and had been adamant that his family not follow the pastor to South America.
“My father didn’t want to have nothing to do with it. He told my mother before we moved up to San Francisco ‘That man’s just going to take you over there and kill you,’” Newell said. “I always found it strange and haunting that he would say that.”
Newell says he never saw the true dark side of the Peoples Temple until he arrived in Guyana.
Jones, obviously on drugs, would slur propaganda over the public address system, Newell said. And sometimes at the end of a long workday, Jones would call town meetings known as White Nights that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
“He asked each of us individually what we would do if we were invaded by mercenaries or whatever. This went on until like 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning,” Newell said. “You’ll do almost anything when you’re deprived of sleep. You’ve been working all day. You haven’t had time to take a shower and you’re doing all these things and he’s asking everyone what they would do. I’m thinking, ‘Hell, just let me get some sleep.”
Jones turned his followers against each other and encouraged them to turn in anyone who had broken his commandments.
“If someone wrote you up, you would be on the floor that night. You would have two people come up there and box you. It was a way of inciting fear in you to make you to conform to whatever it is that he wanted you to do,” Newell said.
Despite the abuse, Newell still found comfort in Jonestown where he worked as a woodcutter, then helped manufact
ure coal and finally worked aboard the Temple’s boat, the Cudjoe.
The Marxist maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” drove work at Jonestown. The work was rewarding, and everyone seemed to enjoy their jobs in the self-sufficient farming community, Newell said.
“I guess I was just blessed. I wasn’t always there in Jonestown all the time,” said Newell, whose work would frequently have him gone on the Cudjoe for days at a time.
It was, in a way, the dream life for someone who grew up on a rural Mississippi farm.
“The last hours, that’s what gave it a bad taste. It made the whole project a bad thing. Otherwise, it would have been a nice ting,” Newell said.

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The end time
By November 1978, something was changing in Jonestown. Workers had stopped clearing the roadways and the mood seemed to be growing tense.
U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan’s office had gotten word from families of Temple members that people were being held against their will and the congressman was coming with an NBC news crew to investigate.
Newell was on the tarmac to greet Ryan when he arrived.
“I didn’t have any ill thoughts about him,” Newell said of Ryan. “Most everyone was ready to welcome him.’
Though many people longed to leave or send their children back to the United States, few dared speak of it for fear of Jones’ wrath.
Later, Newell would discover that his mother had wanted to send her own children home to live with their father, but at the time, she and most of the others never mentioned a desire to leave.
“Whatever the comments are, there are some people here who think this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life,” Ryan told the assembled members of the Temple on Nov. 17, 1978, as they erupted into cheers and thunderous applause.
But the Seventh Seal had been broken, and the end was at hand. Temple member Vernon Gosney had given a note to NBC correspondent Don Harris asking for help leaving.
Everything went on as normal that night, and the next morning, Newell was ordered out on the Cudjoe. It was Saturday, and the boat typically didn’t leave port until Monday. Newell thought it was just one of Jones’ odd strategies
“I told my mom, my girlfriend and my brothers and sisters that I would be back,” Newell said.
He never had the chance to keep his word.
As he was boarding the Cudjoe, Newell’s friend Eddie Crenshaw hinted at Jones’ sinister plan.
“He said ‘When you guys get back here tomorrow, we’ll all be gone; we’ll be dead.’ I told him that was a lot of b.s. I couldn’t picture it. I couldn’t believe it,” Newell said.
Newell went about his work.
At about 1 a.m., Newell was awakened in his camp and arrested by Guyanese soldiers. The soldiers told him that Ryan, members of the news crew and Temple members who had been attempting to flee were attacked and killed at the airstrip.
“They got us and took us to the police station and locked us up. They didn’t know if we had anything to do with the shooting at the airstrip or whatever. We were in jail that night and morning,” Newell said.
Crenshaw, according to FBI documents, was one of the shooters who helped assassinate Ryan on Jones’ order.
At noon, Nov. 19, 1978, soldiers brought word that at least 400 people were dead at Jonestown.
“I told the guy he was lying. I couldn’t believe it,” Newell said. “My heart just sank. As the day went by, the numbers got higher.”
While Newell and others were away, Jones had ordered what he called “revolutionary suicide.” Tubs of Flavor Aid laced with cyanide were presented to the Temple members. Jones ordered them to consume it, saying soldiers would soon come to torture the children and elderly at Jonestown.
“Had I known or thought something like that was going to happen, I would have tried to get my family out,” Newell said.
Jones left behind a number of tapes including a recording of the last hours of Jonestown, during which he can be heard coaxing mothers into executing their own children.
They argue with him as children in the background shriek, gag and weep.
One woman argues extensively with Jones, but is eventually talked down.
The hesitation is obvious. Jones tells Temple members they are too slow. A few agree with him, but most are heard arguing in the background, refusing his orders.
“Stop this nonsense!” Jones yells. “Don’t carry this on. You’re exciting your children!”
Few took the poison willingly, and Newell and other survivors view the act as sheer murder.
“You had three choices. Either you drank the stuff or you got injected with it or you got shot. Pick, but one of those three you’re going to do,” Newell said. “It wasn’t like everybody was agreeing to do this.”
But facing Jones’ armed guards there was nothing much they could do.
“Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world,” Jones says as the 45-minute tape of pure horror ends.
A handful of members escaped into the dense jungle surrounding Jonestown.
“If you got out of Jonestown and tried to run though the jungle, you wouldn’t know where to go,” Newell said. “Jones always told us it was full of poisonous frogs and snakes and panthers, which was true.”

Days of reckoning
After Newell was released from jail, he entered a different type of prison — that of being a survivor, of losing almost his entire family and of being branded with the stigma of the Peoples Temple.
“I almost didn’t want to come back to the United States when it first happened. I didn’t want anyone to be telling me ‘I told you so’ or making me feel bad because I went over there. I just didn’t want to hear nothing like that,” Newell said.
The experience, for a time, ruined Newell on church.
“For a while after it first happened, I didn’t want to have nothing to do with anybody’s church. If my family had not been going to church, this probably would not have come upon us,” Newell said.
Nine hundred and sixteen people died at Jonestown in what was until 9/11 the single greatest lost of American civilian life. About a dozen were Newell’s relatives.
Newell and his brother, Cleveland Jr. who now lives in Chicago, survived. Cleveland was on the Jonestown basketball team, which was in Georgetown, Guyana, the day of the massacre. The brothers were reunited in Freetown days after Newell was released from jail.
Life been a constant struggle ever since.
People blamed Temple members for the deaths of the children and elderly, and the popular misconception was that Jones’ followers blindly committed suicide.
“I just want people to know the truth about it. The people weren’t just following a man blindly,” Newell said.
Newell fell into drug abuse, tried rehab, and relapsed.
“I was self medicating to try to drown the pain of the loss of my family, but I came to the conclusion that doing drugs is not the answer. I was just making my situation worse,” he said. “Once the drugs wore off, I went back to thinking about my family members that I’d lost.”
In 2006, Newell kicked his cocaine habit, but the pain of losing his loved ones still lingers. He now works as a train conductor for the City of Los Angeles, but had to take leave this week.
The memories were too much.
“The route that my train has, it goes across one of the streets where we used to live. Going down that route every day brought back memories of my family. I found myself thinking about them a lot,” Newell said. “It gets easier as the years go by, but it’s something you never forget.”