Though occupying a very important part of relatively recent African American history, most people know very little about the Philadelphia based organization known as MOVE and the city sanctioned massacre that took place on May 13th, 1985 at their home in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia.
The MOVE organization was initially founded by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart), who dropped out of high school at age 16 with a third grade reading level. After serving in the Korean War and becoming disgusted at the American “class system”, John met Donald Glassey, a social worker at University of Pennsylvania. Though John was, for all purposes, functionally illiterate – this did not stop him from making astute observations about how society operated. Glassey, who became quite interested in John’s ideas, offered to transcribe those thoughts. This cumulated into a three-hundred page manuscript that became known as “The Guidelines” – the “bible” of the MOVE organization.
The original name of MOVE was actually “Christian Movement for Life”, which was shortened to “the Movement” and ended up being simply called MOVE. Though considered a black liberation group by many, The MOVE organization attracted both black and white members who were frustrated with society and needed “answers” to many societal ills. MOVE seemed to provide answers to those questions. MOVE’s back-to-nature approach involved eating only raw food, eschewing soap and electricity, and refusing to practice any type of birth control measures. After hearing various complaints from neighbors regarding various intolerable living habits of the MOVE members, such as loud and profane proselytizing through the use of a bullhorn and composting which created a rodent issue among other health hazards, the city and its then mayor, Frank Rizzo, decided to get involved.
In May of 1977, MOVE members started appearing on their porch at 307-309 N 33rd St, in Powelton Village wearing military outfits and brandishing firearms in response to an order to vacate the premises (owned by Donald Glassey). This set off a 14 month siege which tragically ended on August 8th, 1978 with a police officer being killed in a shootout with MOVE members. The MOVE home was demolished, and nine of its members were sentenced to prison terms ranging from thirty to one hundred years (those members are now known as “The MOVE 9”). Two years later, MOVE relocated to 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia where the same problems presented themselves along with new ones.
After numerous complaints from neighbors along with various indictments of MOVE members for various crimes, on March 13, 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department attempted to remove and arrest indicted MOVE members from the Osage Avenue building. As before, this resulted in an armed standoff with the Philadelphia Police Department. This time they went a drastic step further, dropping two improvised bombs made of C-4 and Tovex (a dynamite substitute and a water gel explosive used in underwater mining), on the roof of the MOVE home. The deadly attack left 11 of 13 MOVE members who were inside the home dead, five of which were children. The resulting fire destroyed 61 homes and left 240 people homeless. Philadelphia is the second American city to use explosives on its own constituents and became known as “The City That Bombed Itself”*.
A Federal jury found that Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor and Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond made a decision to allow the resulting fire to burn for almost an hour (the bombs did not create the desired effect), creating the aforementioned disaster. They awarded the two remaining survivors, Ramona Africa and young Birdie Africa (Michael Ward), a total of $1.5 million in civil damages, finding the City of Philadelphia liable for the fire that ended up killing 11 MOVE members and turning a working class city block into ashes. Over twenty families are still battling the City of Philadelphia to pay for their demolished homes.
* The first was in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31st, 1921, when police dropped dynamite on the flourishing Black neighborhood of Greenwood, also known as “The Black Wall Street”, afterwards re-zoning it to make way for a railroad.