A Thousand Lives: ExcerptS

Tommy Hyacinth Stanley Edith


As churchgoers streamed into the Temple one Sunday morning in 1971, a teenager named Stanley Clayton joined them, eager to hear the preacher that had set the black community abuzz. Dressed in a Sears wide-lapel three-piece suit and accompanied by his foster mother, the 17-year-old arrived on a Temple bus that regularly transported worshippers from the East Bay to San Francisco. As he wove through the crowd looking for a seat, he was surprised to see so many people in jeans and t-shirts; where he came from folks "suited down" for church.
    The service began with a rousing performance by the Temple's integrated choir, and this was as much a revelation to Stanley Clayton on that day as it had been to Hyacinth and Zippy 15 years earlier. It was that first exposure to the Temple, that first insight into how the world could and should be, that would sustain Stanley for years to come.
    If you could sum up the teenage Stanley with one word, it would be rage. With his dark-as-ebony skin, he drew attention wherever he went, inevitably of the unwelcome sort. Despite the "black is beautiful" ethos of the era, for Stanley, a white complexion was the standard for all things good—intelligence, attractiveness, power—and he was acutely aware of his place at the opposite end of the color spectrum. His skin was so dark that even other African American kids teased him. "Smudge," they called him, or "Bosco," after the chocolate syrup.   
    Stanley seemed doomed to a life of hard luck from the moment his mother, an alcoholic whose seven kids had seven different fathers, pushed him into the world. The family lived in the slums of West Oakland, where they subsisted on welfare and his mother's meager factory wages. Any extra cash went to replenishing her booze cabinet, not the refrigerator. While Stanley's little brother cried from hunger, Stanley, when he was old enough, helped himself to the neighborhood grocery store, pushing around a shopping cart while slyly eating a package of bologna. He went to school in rags, and spent evenings closed in a back bedroom with his siblings, watching television and trying to avoid drunken strangers in the hallway. His home was a renowned party pad, and after too many bottles of Night Train wine, with its 17.5 percent alcohol content, fights broke out. The boyfriends beat up his mother, and if he or his siblings tried to intervene, the boyfriends beat them as well.
    The rage spilled over. When he was 9, he hit a girl in his class for calling him "darkie," and was sent to juvenile hall. It was the first entry in what would become an extensive rap sheet of crimes committed in his fury of have-notness.
    By the time he started middle school, he was running a black market in coffee and cigarettes. He'd steal the goods from stores, then sell it to his neighbors. It kept him in food and clothes until he tried to rob a shop in an upscale Berkeley neighborhood. The suspicious owner saw him slip a can of Folgers beneath his overcoat, and locked the front door before calling the police. When Stanley found he was trapped inside, he went nuts. He kicked the door and hit the woman, and when the officers arrived, he swung at them, too. A court convicted him of assault and battery as well as petty theft, and sentenced him to a year at the California Youth Authority prison in Stockton. He was 12 years old.
    There were thousands of kids like Stanley Clayton in the East Bay. In Oakland, there was a hair-trigger relationship between the large, destitute black population and the predominantly white police force. The Oakland PD's motto seemed to be "shoot first, ask questions later." The Black Panther Party was born from this brutal atmosphere, pledging to defend the community from police violence. And it so happened that Stanley's foster mom was the aunt of Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers.
    Whenever the dashing, eloquent Newton stopped by Miss Jessie's for a visit, Stanley hung at his elbow, absorbing every word. The gospel of the Panther leader was radically different than Miss Jessie's. Rather than abiding injustice in hopes of some distant heavenly reward, Brother Newton called on black men to take up arms against racist oppression. When Stanley was released from the youth authority, he came home to find Newton and his comrades tailing squad cars with loaded shotguns, policing the police. Black is powerful was the message Newton broadcast to the brothers on the block.
    Peoples Temple seemed a happy medium between Newton's militancy and Miss Jessie's pray-about-it passivity. On that first Sunday, Stanley was wooed by the choir, wowed by Jones's healings, and won over by his call to create a brotherhood based on equality and respect.
Surrounded by that musical, magical, integrated fellowship was akin to being engulfed in a giant embrace. It was everything Stanley longed for. He felt caught up in greatness, freed.  
    "I want to be part of this," he told his foster mother.
He turned 18 a few months later, and moved to Ukiah to be closer to Jim Jones.