MOVE Philadelphia Bombing History and Fallout

When Philadelphia was Called ‘The City that Bombed Itself’

Smoke Rising from Destroyed Homes in Philadelphia
Smoke Rising from Destroyed Homes in Philadelphia After MOVE Bombing.

Getty Images/Bettmann

On Monday, May 13, 1985, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter dropped two bombs on a Philadelphia house where members of the MOVE Black liberation organization lived. The resulting fire grew out of control, resulting in the deaths of 11 people, including five children, and the destruction of 65 area homes. An independent investigation of the event heaped criticism on the city’s administration and at least for a time earned Philadelphia an unwanted reputation as “the city that bombed itself.” 

Fast Facts: MOVE Bombing

  • Description: Philadelphia police bomb the home of the MOVE Black liberation organization, killing 11 and destroying dozens of homes.
  • Date: May 13, 1985
  • Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Key Participants: John Africa (Vincent Leaphart), James J. Ramp, Wilson Goode, Gregore Sambor, Ramona Africa

About MOVE and John Africa

MOVE is a Philadelphia-based Black liberation group founded in 1972 by John Africa, the assumed name of Vincent Leaphart. Not an acronym, the group’s name, MOVE, was chosen by John Africa to reflect the group’s true intentions. Living in a communal arrangement and often associated with the Black Power movement, MOVE mixes the beliefs of Black nationalismPan-Africanism, and anarcho-primitivism in advocating for the return to a hunter-gatherer society devoid of modern technology and medicine. Originally called the Christian Movement for Life, MOVE, as it did in 1972, identifies itself as being deeply religious and devoted to a belief in the independence and ethical treatment of all living creatures. “Everything that's alive moves. If it didn't, it would be stagnant, dead,” states MOVE’s founding charter, “The Guidelines,” created by John Africa.

Like many of his contemporaries, the charismatic John Africa wore his hair in dreadlocks in keeping with the Caribbean Rastafari religion. In a show of loyalty to what they considered their true home, his followers also chose to change their last names to “Africa.”

In 1978, most of MOVE’s members had moved into a row house in the predominately Black Powelton Village area of West Philadelphia. It was here that the group’s numerous loud public demonstrations for racial justice and animal rights angered their neighbors and ultimately led to violent confrontations with Philadelphia police.

The 1978 Shootout and the Move 9

In 1977, complaints from neighbors about MOVE’s lifestyle and bullhorn-amplified protests had led the police to obtain a court order requiring the group to vacate their Powelton Village compound. When informed of the order, MOVE members agreed to turn in their firearms and leave peacefully if their members arrested during the demonstrations were first released from jail. While the police complied with the demand, MOVE refused to vacate their house or give up their weapons. Nearly a year later, the standoff took a violent turn.

On August 8, 1978, when police arrived at the MOVE compound to execute the court order, a shootout erupted during which Philadelphia Police Officer James J. Ramp was fatally shot in the back of his neck. MOVE denied responsibility for Officer Ramp’s death, claiming that although he was shot in the back of the neck he had been facing their house at the time. During the nearly hour-long standoff, five firefighters, seven police officers, three MOVE members, and three bystanders were also injured.

Since known as the MOVE Nine, MOVE members Merle, Phil, Chuck, Michael, Debbie, Janet, Janine, Delbert, and Eddie Africa were convicted of third-degree murder in the death of Officer Ramp. Sentenced to up to 100 years in jail, they were all denied parole in 2008.

After spending 42 years behind bars, Delbert Africa was released from prison in January 2020, a mere five months before his death on June 16, 2020. Delbert, along with all of the convicted MOVE members maintains their innocence, saying their trials had been flawed. 

In an arrest captured by cameras and broadcast nationwide, Delbert Africa was shown surrendering to the police—with his hands in the air, being knocked down, kicked, and beaten. One glaring image showed a police officer with his foot firmly planted on Africa’s head. To many, the arrest became a symbol of police brutality, especially in Philadelphia, where police relations with Black residents were already strained.

The MOVE convictions came during a period when similar charges were often filed against Black activists in attempts to kill the movements they represented. Examples include Assata Shakur, a former Black Liberation Army member, who was convicted in the first-degree murder of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, and Black Panthers Party member Angela Davis, who was jailed for conspiracy to murder in 1970.

MOVE Recovers and Relocates

By 1981, MOVE had recovered from the 1978 shootout and relocated its growing membership into a house at 6221 Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek, a predominantly Black middle-class subdivision in West Philadelphia. Neighbors lodged numerous complaints about the new MOVE compound and their interactions with the rest of the neighborhood.

The 1985 Bombing

On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode dispatched police to execute warrants for the arrest of all residents of the MOVE compound.

Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode at a press conference to discuss the aftermath of the bomb and fire that destroyed the MOVE house
Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode at a press conference to discuss the aftermath of the bomb. Getty Images/Leif Skoogfors

When the police arrived, MOVE members refused to respond to their demands to enter the home or to allow the children to come outside. Despite the presence of children, Mayor Goode and Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor decided the situation warranted the use of “military-grade weapons” and extreme physical force as required. “Attention MOVE: This is America!” police warned over loudspeakers.

After initial attacks with water barrages from fire hoses and tear gas explosions failed to drive MOVE members from the house, shooting broke out. At the height of the firefight, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter flew over the house dropping two small “entry device” bombs made of FBI-supplied water gel explosive in an attempt to destroy MOVE’s rooftop bunker. Fed by gasoline stored in the house, a small fire caused by the bombs grew quickly. Rather than risk having firefighters caught in the ongoing crossfire, police officials decided to allow the fire to burn out. Instead of going out harmlessly, the fire spread throughout the neighborhood, destroying more than sixty homes and leaving at least 250 Philadelphians homeless.

Along with the destruction of a residential neighborhood, the MOVE bombing resulted in the deaths of six adults, including MOVE founder John Afric. Five children inside the home were also killed. Ramona Africa and 13-year-old Birdie Africa were the only two MOVE members living in the house to survive the incident. Ramona Africa later said that police fired on MOVE members trying to escape.

Select Commission Finds City at Fault

With most of the attack covered on live television, many people in Philadelphia and across the nation questioned the decisions made by Mayor Goode and police officials. On March 6, 1986, an independent Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission appointed by Goode issued a report finding that police had used “grossly negligent” tactics in committing an “unconscionable” act by “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house.” The report was highlighted by two telling findings:

“The city administration discounted negotiation as a method of resolving the problem. Any attempted negotiations were haphazard and uncoordinated.”

“The Mayor's failure to call a halt to the operation on May 12, when he knew that children were in the house, was grossly negligent and clearly risked the lives of those children.”

The commission further found that the police would have been unlikely to use similar tactics in a white neighborhood. Despite the commission’s request for a grand jury investigation, no prosecutions resulted and Mayor Goode was reelected in 1987.

The Aftermath of the Bombing

Ramona Africa, the only adult MOVE member to survive the bombing, was convicted of rioting and conspiracy and served seven years in prison. In 1996, a federal jury awarded Ramona Africa and the relatives of two people killed in the bombing a total of $1.5 million in damages in a civil suit judgment. The jury also found that Philadelphia officials had authorized the use of excessive force and had violated MOVE members’ 4th Amendment constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Ramona Africa (R), the lone survivor of the 1985 MOVE tragedy, hugs Denise Garner (L) during a commemorative march in 2005
Ramona Africa (R), the lone adult survivor of the 1985 MOVE tragedy, hugs Denise Garner (L) during a commemorative march in 2005. Getty Images/William Thomas Cain

The New York Times reported that the City of Philadelphia also paid over $27.3 million in legal fees and the cost of rebuilding the houses destroyed in the bombing. In addition, the MOVE group itself was paid $2.5 million to settle wrongful death suits brought on behalf of the five children who died.

In 2016, Ramona Africa, who continues to serve as spokesperson for MOVE, tied the group to the Black Lives Matter movement, asserting that cases of brutality in the police killings of Black men throughout the U.S. are “happening today because it wasn’t stopped in ’85.”

Ongoing Legacy

Jailed at age 22, Debbie Africa was released from prison in June 2018. Then 62, and a grandmother many times over, she moved in with her son, Michael Africa Jr., in a borough of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. 

Of the MOVE 9 members who were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison for the killing, only she and Delbert Africa have been paroled; two others have died in prison. The remaining MOVE members still in jail have been eligible for parole since 2008. Like the rest of the MOVE 9, Debbie Africa continues to adamantly maintain her innocence. “It’s not what I believe, it’s what I know: I did not kill anybody,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The New MOVE

According to Linn Washington, professor of journalism at Temple University, the MOVE of today bears little resemblance to the MOVE that existing at the time of the bombing. 

While they no longer live the strict, back-to-nature, anti-technology lifestyles demanded by John Africa, MOVE members in the area remain loyal to his basic teachings. Members carry cellphones and use other modern conveniences. While the group does not actively recruit new members, it doesn’t turn people away, either, according to Michael Africa Jr. While MOVE has always been anti-violence, anti-gun, and anti-confrontation, it does not prevent members from protecting themselves. “We are peaceful people, but we are defensive people, too,” Africa Jr. told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And I think people get those things confused because they equate fighting or defending yourself with violence … but it’s not the same thing.”

In a far less confrontational way than in 1985, Michael and Debbie Africa carry on the teachings of MOVE’s founder, John Africa. 

Today, MOVE operates part of the nonprofit Seed of Wisdom Foundation, founded by John Africa Jr. in 1977 to help children escape dangerous environments.

Michael Africa Jr. described the Seed of Wisdom Foundation as a sister organization of MOVE that advocates the teachings of John Africa and “natural law,” which includes living a healthy lifestyle and focusing on social justice issues and environmental protection.

Remains of MOVE Children Recovered

Thirty-six years after the MOVE bombings, controversy arose over the possession and mishandling of the remains of two MOVE children killed in the assault.

In April 2021, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a set of remains, believed by the MOVE commission’s experts, to be those of 12-year-old Delisha Africa and 14-year-old Tree Africa, had been held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum and Princeton University for decades and studied by the university’s anthropology and archaeology departments, without the knowledge of the Africa family. 

On August 25, 2021, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and the Penn Museum released the findings of an independent investigative report on the handling of the partial remains, authored by The Tucker Law Group.

According to the 217-page report, the museum exhibited the remains to graduate students, donors, and museum personnel on at least 10 occasions between 2014 and 2019. 

The report found there was a “reasonable degree of certainty” that the remains of an unidentified MOVE member were used by Princeton University in a series of online courses during 2019, but noted that “the identity of the remains used in the video is still a matter of legitimate dispute.” The report further confirmed that neither the Penn Museum nor Princeton had informed or obtained consent from MOVE members to use the remains in the online courses.

While the report found that the university had not violated “any specific professional, ethical or legal standards by retaining and displaying the remains,” it also said that the anthropologists involved had demonstrated “extremely poor judgment, and a gross insensitivity to the human dignity as well as the social and political implications” of their actions.

"This current period of racial reckoning, coupled with the repatriation of human remains movement of the last several years, demand an acknowledgment that many universities and museums were complicit in creating the scientific justifications for slavery resulting in the dehumanization of Black people in life and the desecration of their bodies after death," the report said.

In light of these findings, the report laid out several recommendations for the university and museum.

The report called for Princeton University to set up a permanent public information installation about the MOVE bombing at the school and establish a scholarship program for graduates of Philadelphia public high schools and charter schools in West Philadelphia.

The report also called for the Penn Museum to hire a chief diversity officer; conduct a review of all holdings and collections practices of the museum’s physical anthropology sections, and reassess its policies around the possession and use of human remains.

The report called for the creation of a permanent committee to help the university improve its relationship with the West Philadelphia community.

Finally, the report recommended that the university hire an expert with a record of advocacy for Black and Indigenous people and in reparation requests to help with the analysis of human remains.

On July 13, 2021, Philadelphia officials confirmed that the remains of the 1985 MOVE bombing victims, formerly held by the Penn Museum, had been returned to the Africa family on July 2. Additional sets of unidentified remains were still in the custody of the city’s medical examiner because those remains were part of an ongoing investigation.

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Longley, Robert. "MOVE Philadelphia Bombing History and Fallout." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/move-philadelphia-bombing-4175986. Longley, Robert. (2021, October 2). MOVE Philadelphia Bombing History and Fallout. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/move-philadelphia-bombing-4175986 Longley, Robert. "MOVE Philadelphia Bombing History and Fallout." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/move-philadelphia-bombing-4175986 (accessed December 7, 2021).