An inauspicious beginning

Comedian-activist Dick Gregory (left) meets with MOVE members Phil, Chuckie and Delbert Africa in March 1978. At right is Mercel Randolph, who worked with Gregory.
Comedian-activist Dick Gregory (left) meets with MOVE members Phil, Chuckie and Delbert Africa in March 1978. At right is Mercel Randolph, who worked with Gregory. (Michele Tranquilli)
Posted: May 06, 2010

THE POLITICAL hellfires of the 1960s - like a lot of things - came a little late to Philadelphia. In the case of the radical group MOVE and the inferno that it sparked, the flaming embers have never fully burned out.

The beginnings seemed unremarkable. In 1972, a militant student activist named Donald Glassey came to Philadelphia from the Michigan State campus as a grad student and social worker.

One of the people he met in his Powelton Village neighborhood was a 41-year-old handyman with a third-grade education named Vincent Leaphart, who was known as something of a street-corner philosopher.

The white student radical, Glassey, was so taken with the urban black activist, that he transcribed some of Leaphart's ideas into a manuscript called The Guideline, a blueprint for a neighborhood activist group that at first was simply called "Vinnie's Gang" and then the Community Action Movement, later shortened to MOVE.

"MOVE is in the tradition of the more progressive leftist groups like the Black Panthers and groups like that, that were emerging. This was a variant," said Paul Wahrhaftig, author of The MOVE Crisis in Philadelphia: Extremist Groups and Conflict Resolution.

The 1970s was a tumultuous decade in Philadelphia - with urban unrest, gang warfare and the iconic law-and-order regime of tough-cop-turned-mayor Frank L. Rizzo. But as it wore on, MOVE began to stand out for its eccentric views on technology and "getting back to nature."

There were about 30 people in "Vinnie's Gang," many living in a large Victorian house in Powelton Village. They garnered headlines for protesting the captivity of animals at the nearby Philadelphia Zoo, while drawing complaints from neighbors for trash dumping and rat infestation.

MOVE gradually moved further from its community activist roots and into stranger territory. Leaphart changed his name to John Africa, in keeping with a "back to Africa" philosophy. Soon most of his followers grew dreadlocks and changed their own surnames to "Africa" as well - some of John Africa's followers even believed he had supernatural powers - and the group became more militant. By the late 1970s, co-founder Glassey had split from the group and was cooperating with law enforcement.

On Aug. 8, 1978, Rizzo, armed with an order to evict MOVE from the Powelton Village home and then bulldoze it, ordered police to storm the building. A shootout ensued and when the smoke cleared, one police officer - James J. Ramp - lay dead. Nine members of the group were convicted of murder.

John Africa, facing weapons charges, spent several years on the lam, but MOVE did not disappear.

Instead, by 1981, the movement had regrouped in a house at 6221 Osage Ave. in West Philadelphia that was owned by John Africa's sister, Louise James. Soon, the MOVE members had fortified the home and also set up a loudspeaker that sent a constant barrage of noise into the surrounding streets.

The rowhouses on and around Osage had been settled by black working-class families in the 1960s. Many of these homeowners demanded action, especially after voters elected W. Wilson Goode as Philadelphia's first black mayor, who defeated Rizzo in a close election in 1983.

On May 1, 1985, the MOVE neighbors went public with their demands that City Hall act. Goode, who initially told neighbors he was stumped over what to do about the radical group, was convinced by cops and then-district attorney Ed Rendell that there was enough evidence for a search warrant, signed by Common Pleas Judge Lynne Abraham, the future D.A. Police barricaded the neighborhood on Mother's Day, May 12, asked residents to leave, and took up their positions.

When the sun rose on Monday, May 13, 1985, then-police commissioner Gregore J. Sambor appeared with his own bullhorn to order MOVE out, announcing: "Attention, MOVE. This is America." The first shots were fired before 6 a.m., and police efforts to roust the radicals with water cannons and tear gas failed. At 5:27 p.m., as much of Philadelphia watched on TV, a state police helicopter dropped explosives on the rooftop bunker.

Soon flames appeared, but firefighters were initially paralyzed by the raging gunfighters. Two survivors, Ramona Africa and the then-13-year-old known as Birdie Africa, fled the home and were arrested while the fire spread through the neighborhood before it was brought under control, about midnight. Eleven bodies - including John Africa's - would be found in the rubble; 53 homes were destroyed, eight others were damaged and all 61 were razed.

A special commission created to probe the tragedy said that Goode and other top officials had acted with "reckless disregard" and that the debacle would not have happened in a predominantly white neighborhood. Panel member Bruce Kaufmann, now a federal judge, dissented: "The tragic events of that day were caused, purely and simply, by incompetence, bad judgment and other errors."

Goode again defeated Rizzo for re-election in 1987, but his own legacy is forever singed by the decision to drop the bomb. Meanwhile, efforts to rebuild the neighborhood and bring peace back to Osage Avenue have instead brought more turmoil.

An initial attempt to rebuild the destroyed block was plagued by shoddy construction and corruption. The developer, Ernest Edwards, went to jail. The city reached a settlement with homeowners, but today more than half the block remains vacant, windows shrouded in plywood.

On a recent warm April night, the jingle of an ice-cream truck passed by and only a couple of adults were outside on their front stoops. But James Taylor Jr., 45, who's lived on Osage Avenue since the early 1970s, said the people who are left still look out for each other:

"This isn't a block - it's an extended family," Taylor said.

Taylor is just one of many Philadelphians - from the powerful to everyday people - still dealing with the aftermath of May 13, 1985. In the following pages, you will hear their stories.

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