When I moved to Philadelphia in August of 1987 to take up a position at Drexel University, the ashes on the MOVE bombing had hardly begun to cool. I knew little at the time about the decision by then-Mayor Wilson Goode to solve a local noise problem by dropping a bomb — not a turn of phrase but an actual incendiary explosive — on the roof of 6221 Osage Avenue, a building in the midst of a crowded West Philadelphia neighborhood. I knew little about Philadelphia itself, having never visited the city before my job interview. I did know, by then, that the resulting blaze on the roof had not only burned down the building below but a good part of the neighborhood around it. I knew that eleven residents of the building, including five children, had been killed in the blaze, with police gunfire greeting those trying to flee. I did want the job, but also a few better answers to the question of how and why Philadelphia had become the first city known to me to have bombed its own citizens.
From the little I had gathered, MOVE was a fringe Black collective whose members had taken the surname of Africa from their self-styled founder, John Africa, who was making the point that all African Americans involuntarily brought to America had been stripped not only of their freedom but their identity, and were known not by their own names but by their masters’. The names they had left behind could not be recovered, and, although some African Americans had adopted new ones — the former Cassius Clay having assumed the most famous one, Mohammed Ali — the new names were as much an arbitrary identity as the ones slaveowners had once given them, even if now freely chosen. The members of MOVE were making a point that could not be made otherwise: that only by adopting the surname that recovered the one identity that could not be denied them, their common place of origin, could they affirm both the heritage that others had attempted to deny them and the bondage in which, symbolically and in fact, they and others like them still lived.
The members of MOVE were not alone in making such a gesture. A Black activist born Malcolm Little had taken the name of Malcolm X, also to discard a “slave” identity; so had others. But MOVE was a commune, dedicated to living together in the city. In the America of the early 1970s — and the Philadelphia of Police Commissioner and then-Mayor Frank Rizzo — after the urban riots of the 1960s and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Black Panther leaders, such an experiment was not likely to be accommodated.
Wanting to know more, I went to a public meeting about the MOVE bombing on the Penn campus. I made the suggestion that there had been miscommunication on both sides, with a horrific tragedy the result. I was immediately challenged by an angry woman who said I had no idea what I was talking about. Her name was Pam Africa. And she was right.
The MOVE bombing was not an aberrant episode; it was the culmination of a decade-long war that had first escalated in a full-scale police assault against the original MOVE enclave in Powelton Village in the summer of 1978. This was a shootout in which police surrounded MOVE’s property and fired indiscriminately into a building occupied by children as well as adults. MOVE members fired back in self-defense. A police officer, James Ramp, was killed in the crossfire. When the shooting stopped and MOVE members surrendered, there were savage beatings. Although it was never established who had fired the fatal shot, Ramp’s wound forensically indicated it had come from police fire. Nine MOVE members, male and female, were nonetheless charged with murder. All were convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Collective guilt was ordained; collective injustice was meted out. The path to the bombing was laid out.
Two years later, a young Black journalist named Mumia Abu-Jamal was arrested for the slaying of another Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, in an altercation involving Abu-Jamal’s brother. With no prior criminal record, he had been publicly targeted by Rizzo. A supporter of MOVE although not a member, Abu-Jamal was tried and sentenced to death before a judge, Albert Sabo, who admitted to perjured testimony and openly declared his intention to “fry the n*****.” MOVE, along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international organizations, denounced the trial. That was enough. MOVE was now associated with the deaths of two Philadelphia police officers. Vengeance was inevitable. When Wilson Goode proclaimed it a terrorist organization, its offense being disturbing the neighborhood, its eradication was predicated.
Two members of the so-called “MOVE Nine” would die in prison, and a third within six months of his release. All served forty years of a sentence without basis in law. Debbie Sims Africa, who had given birth to her son in prison, was not reunited with him until 2018. The sentences stand; all of the surviving members of the Nine are free only on parole. Ramona Africa, the sole survivor of the bombing, was the only person tried and sentenced to prison in connection with it.
It was not until November 2020 that Philadelphia’s City Council extended an apology for the bombing, one not joined by Mayor Jim Kenney. No compensation was offered to the survivors. No marker indicates the site. But, with the Council statement and the release of the last of the MOVE prisoners, it seemed that a corner might have been turned.
Now, however, the crowning shame has come. The bodies and remains of the incinerated bombing victims, instead of being returned to family members, were held for six months in the city morgue, where they decomposed and were in some cases crushed by machines. Two juvenile bone fragments, one of a pelvis and the other of a femur, were given by a city commission to a Penn professor, Alan Mann, and housed in the Penn Museum’s notorious Morton Cranial Collection. One of Mann’s students, Janet Monge, used videos of the fragments as illustrations in her course, “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology.” She is now a curator at the Penn Museum. Mann retained custody of the bones, and took them with him when he moved to Princeton University in 2001, where they were also shown online. The bones were returned to Penn in 2016, and then to Professor Mann, who denied knowledge of their whereabouts although they were in his home. They belonged, as is now believed, to Tree and Dalisha Africa. They were fourteen and twelve years old, respectively.
I have come to know Pam and Ramona Africa personally. I have learned their story. I have attended their rallies and marched in their protests. They are brave, dedicated, and resilient. What they and their family have suffered can never be sufficiently atoned. This latest insult, the theft and desecration of children’s bones, is an unforgivable obscenity. The city of Philadelphia burned these children alive. Its principal university knowingly profaned their smallest, most pulverized remains. No amends can made for this. Philadelphia can only live with its shame. And we must all bear it.