This year’s anniversary of the MOVE bombing at 6221 Osage Avenue may prove to be the largest commemoration to date of the event. On May 13, 1985, the City of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the MOVE compound, killing 11 people, including five children, and destroying 61 neighboring homes in the ensuing fire. 

At last year’s 35th anniversary, 11 Philadelphia City Council members issued an apology for the bombing, while a group called Serudj-Ta Alliance for Restorative Justice dedicated a small street shrine to deceased MOVE members. The event took place on the 2400 block of N. 59th Street, renamed W. Wilson Goode Sr. Way in 2018 to honor the city’s first black mayor for his service to the city. Goode, who is now an ordained minister, resides on the street not far from where the memorial took place.

Last year’s protesters urged the city to rescind the street’s new name despite Rev. Goode’s numerous apologies for his decision to bomb the Osage Avenue house. At one point the former mayor even stated that, “the bombing would be on my conscience for the rest of my life,” while also repeatedly affirming that, “I refuse to be defined by one day in my life.”

Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in activist circles, however. Even The Inquirer’s Jenice Armstrong called the street name change in honor of Goode “a disgrace.”

In an article about the 35th anniversary, Philly Voice quoted a speaker at the event:  “‘Former Mayor Wilson Goode had a come-to-Jesus moment and decided to apologize for what happened here on Osage Avenue,’ a speaker at the protest said Saturday. “‘We repeat back ‘apology without action is meaningless.’” 

“Action,” is the key word here. What would the protesters and The Inquirer’s Ms. Armstrong have the former mayor do? What form of an apology would be acceptable? Could we be possibly talking about some kind of blood sacrifice?

What would the protesters and The Inquirer’s Ms. Armstrong have the former mayor do? What form of an apology would be acceptable? Could we be possibly talking about some kind of blood sacrifice?

Perhaps such senseless demands stem from how the MOVE tragedy has ensconced itself into contemporary culture — absent all context in the lead up to the bombing.

There have been documentary films, most notably “The Fire Next Time,” as well as Opera Philadelphia’s version of the MOVE saga, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Publicity for the opera described the 1985 standoff with police as “infamously ending with a neighborhood destroyed and 11 people dead, including five children.” That’s all the reader or listener comes away with. MOVE’s contentious and controversial presence in the city is completely omitted. The characters depicted in the opera inhabit the old MOVE house and are “inspired by the ghosts who inhabit this home and begin to see their squatting as a matter of destiny and resistance rather than urgent fear.”

In 2014, the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted an exhibition in the Perelman Building entitled, “Philadelphia Assembled.” The series of actions, exhibitions, workshops, performances, lectures and panel discussions was organized by famous Dutch artist, Jeanae van Heesijk. One of the exhibitions was a tribute to MOVE which detailed the organization’s history, including the horrific bombing in 1985. 

Based on the exhibition’s MOVE narrative, anyone unfamiliar with MOVE would have assumed that the city’s actions against the organization occurred in a vacuum. Left out of the story was how for years MOVE had alienated its own largely African American neighborhood by instigating confrontations with neighbors daily, its perverse cultivation of a rat and trash problem that soon reached epidemic proportions, and the round-the-clock obscenities shouted at passers-by through bullhorns. 

Revisionist history (or history by omission) is where we are as a culture now. While the loss of life at the MOVE compound was inexcusable, it is also true that MOVE played a very important part in its own destruction. Returning to the 2020 Philly Voice article commemorating MOVE’s 35th anniversary, the piece did note rather superficially that there was a “Long history of conflict between the City and MOVE,” but was otherwise short on details.  The main thrust of the story suggested unrelenting police oppression:  “The violent attack [May 13, 1985] came after over a decade of police violence & repression of MOVE activists…. A Black neighborhood was destroyed in the process.”

While the loss of life at the MOVE compound was inexcusable, it is also true that MOVE played a very important part in its own destruction.

No mention, of course, was made that the black neighborhood in question did not want MOVE in their neighborhood to begin with.

What is apparent is that journalists who write stories like the one that appeared in Philly Voice were not around in 1978 when MOVE first appeared on the scene. Younger journalists seem to think that the group’s history of confrontation had to do with excesses by a racist police department. 

MOVE in 1978 was in many ways typical of many of the hippie communes that had sprung up throughout the country. It became a commune of black families intent on unplugging from the media and materialism and supporting social justice issues and environmental causes.

MOVE (not an acronym), in fact, was the most important and controversial alternative back-to-nature religious group ever to come from Philadelphia’s Powelton Village.

Its founder, John Africa, (born Vincent Leaphart) adopted the name Africa because he wanted to honor the fact that all of life originated on that continent. Leaphart had only a third grade education, served in the Korean War and, for a brief time, was an interior designer in New York City. He moved back to West Philadelphia where he began work as a handyman while developing a philosophy of life in which he condemned The System, government and industry as the origin of humankind’s problems. MOVE’s co-founder, Donald Glassey, was the Caucasian son of the Boy Scouts of America national vice president and a student activist at the University of Pennsylvania. 

MOVE was originally known as the Christian Movement for Life– a militant black separatist back-to-nature group–when it was founded with 50 members in Powelton Village in 1972 by Leaphart and Glassey.

Shortly after its founding, the radical movement came to the attention of the police when their profanity laced demonstrations against what was then termed “the bourgeoisie,” received city-wide attention.

MOVE’s confrontations with neighbors and the city came to a head on August 8, 1978 when police attempted to enforce a court order to vacate the Powelton Village property. What followed was a shootout in which one police officer was killed and seven officers, five firefighters, three MOVE members and three bystanders were injured.

After nine MOVE members were sentenced to prison for their part in the shootout, the compound relocated to nearby Cobbs Creek, at 6221 Osage Ave. where the May 13, 1985 tragedy occurred.

At the time, Philadelphia’s Powelton Village neighborhood was a contentious place. It was Philadelphia’s Bohemia. Steven Levy, in his book about Ira Einhorn, “Unicorn’s Secret: Murder in the Age of Aquarius,” explains Powelton as “the place that housed [Philadelphia’s] outcasts, fringe characters, mavericks, counterculturists, and lunatics.” 

Walking near the MOVE compound in 1978, one would almost always hear the bullhorn shrieks of MOVE members shouting obscenities. It was, in the MOVE vocabulary, a kind of call to prayer. 

Although MOVE claimed to be revolutionary, it was out of step with most of the political movements current at the time, such as the burgeoning gay rights movement which had an important ally in the University of Pennsylvania. 

The Gays at Penn lecture series was a popular seasonal event that brought many prominent national gay and lesbian thinkers and activists to the Penn stage.  Several of these lectures were raided by MOVE members who stormed the stage, forcing the speaker from the podium while chanting obscene chants about the sexual practices of homosexuals. 

MOVE protesters also raised their voices against a wide range of persons, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Quakers and the Communist Party. This unhinged ideological hodgepodge made the group hard to fathom. Prominent African American activists had little regard for the group and basically considered MOVE an embarrassment to the civil rights movement.    

MOVE members took great pride in living close to nature by spurning electricity, leaving their garbage outside on the ground for natural earth recycling, advocating vegetarianism, not taking baths and growing their hair in dreadlocks common to the Rastafarian religious movement in Jamaica. John Africa expected members to take the last name of Africa.   

Chicago Tribune writer George E. Curry wrote in 1985 that instead of soap, MOVE members use a herbal mix that included garlic. (No crime is implied here; people in the late Sixties and early 70s often went without underarm deodorant, thinking the latter to be a corporate invention and “anti-organic.”)   

“They routinely take in stray dogs, also considered one of nature’s gifts, and feed rats that assume the status of co-tenants in their dwellings,” Curry continued. “Although they claim to be against technology, the group dropped its early non-violence creed and began arming themselves with automatic weapons and enrolling in self-defense courses during the mid-1970s.”

‘Although they claim to be against technology, the group dropped its early non-violence creed and began arming themselves with automatic weapons and enrolling in self-defense courses during the mid-1970s.’

Ron Javers, editor of Philadelphia Magazine in the 1980s, wrote that MOVE members always seem to be on a death trip.

“It’s a group that needs to feel the world is imploding on them to have inner group solidarity.”

The Los Angeles Times offered its own view in 1985 that, “…. despite an avowed pacifism, police said Tuesday that MOVE’s followers were skilled in building sophisticated fortifications, including bunkers with half-inch steel walls in their nondescript frame row house on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.”

Immediately after the tragedy, Mayor Wilson Goode defended his actions when he described MOVE as a “terrorist group that had to be removed from its neighborhood.” 

“This community knows MOVE,” he stated, referring to West Philadelphia and to some degree the City of Philadelphia. “It knows them as a group dedicated to the entire destruction of our way of life.” The mayor then went on to say that MOVE had threatened the lives of the President, the police, judges and even their neighbors.

“The MOVE members wanted and desire to have a violent confrontation,” Goode said. “We should not allow any group to hold an entire city hostage.”

While the loss of life in the MOVE bombing was tragic, the gross mishandling of the situation on Osage Avenue should not be cause to sugarcoat the truth and to view MOVE through a Pollyanna lens. MOVE had become a dangerous organization, and something had to be done. The question was, what?

The nearly impossible situation called for a highly sophisticated solution which the City, to its own detriment, was unable to provide.      

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based author and journalist, who has written fifteen books, including: Out in History, Philadelphia Mansions, Literary Philadelphia, From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia. Nickels has written extensively and is currently a regular columnist for City Journal New York, the Philadelphia Irish Edition and the Philadelphia Free Press.

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