By WILL BUNCH
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
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
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
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.